There are numerous touching stories about broken heart syndrome, in which long-time couples die moments or days apart. The family is sad, but comforted by the belief that “they wanted to be together” at the end. Like many, I love these stories and often anticipate the quick death of the surviving spouse following the death of their longtime partner. We find meaning when that happens.
But what if it doesn’t?
In the past year, I have witnessed the death of a family member and of a close friend, both of whom were “attached at the proverbial hip” to their spouses. Each experienced their own physical decline as their partner was dying. And those of us who knew them quietly talked about our expectation and acceptance of the fact that the surviving spouse would soon follow the other in death. It almost felt like it would be a relief for us all not to have to bear witness to their profound loss.
But in each case, this was not to be, and we were admittedly perplexed. What about “broken heart syndrome?” we thought. What about them saying, “I would not want to live without him/her?”
As in any situation, everyone has their own journey. Witnessing theirs, I saw that the surviving spouses began to find new meaning and new life, despite profound grief. In both cases, the family had grown closer as their loved one was dying. And this brought new awareness and joy. These renewed connections accompanied opportunities to discover new identities without the beloved spouse. A different life emerged from their broken heart.
This did not mean they did not love their partner. This did not mean they secretly wanted to be “free” to explore a new life. It simply meant that no one can predict the journey of life and death or grief. It’s a dynamic and transformative process and we can only bear witness as we seek to find meaning.
I have also witnessed the reverse — spouses who had been in ongoing conflict, who had expressed that death would be a welcome release from the nightmare that was their marriage. I observed these spouses taking an unexpected turn in health and dying within days of their partner’s death. Anger can tie people to each other in ways that are as strong as love.
And it doesn’t just impact people.
A fellow hospice nurse arrived to a home to pronounce the death of an 88-year-old woman named Grace. She had lived alone with her small dog, Taffy, her most trusted companion. Respecting the need for closure for all survivors, the nurse put the little dog onto the chest of her deceased mistress, letting Taffy see that her owner had died. The little dog sniffed Grace’s face and gently licked her cheek. She then curled up on her mistress’s chest and died. Just like that. They were companions in both life and death, and we were touched to witness their exit together.
In living and dying, make no assumptions. Bear witness to the journey that survivors take as they navigate a broken heart. Find your own meaning.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” – Albert Einstein
Tani Bahti, RN, CT, CHPN, offers practical guidance to demystify the dying process. A RN since 1976, Tani has been working to empower families and healthcare professionals to enable the best end-of-life experience possible through education and the development of helpful tools and resources. The current owner of Pathways, Tani is also the author of “Dying to Know, Straight Talk About Death and Dying,” a book that SevenPonds considers one of the most helpful books on the subject available today. Founder Suzette Sherman says, “This is the book I will have at the bedside of my dying parents some day, hopefully, a very long time from now.”
Did you enjoy Tani’s post? Then check out our post on the science of broken heart syndrome to learn more.