Nearly everyone knows someone who has died this year, whether from COVID-19 or other causes. This has been a year of death for this planet, and if you have lost someone close, you have cause to grieve—and you should know about the hidden, dangerous heart condition called broken heart syndrome.
This is not about the loss of your loved one; it’s about you as a survivor. Grieving sits near the top of the list of taboo subjects due to the level of social discomfort involved. To be brutally honest, most people don’t want to hear about other people’s grief, despite mouthed words of comfort and offers of help. And that’s their right—they don’t have to share your feelings, memories, explanations. They also don’t really know what to do or say. For some strange reason, in our society, the stoic people are most applauded, and those who deliver three-hanky monologues make others squirm.
I have been both kinds of mourners. Some 31 years ago, my 51-year-old fiancé, Peter, suffered a massive fatal heart attack one beautiful September morning in La Quinta. Although I had studied CPR, I couldn’t bring him back—and I wept unceasingly for months and months. Then, this May, my 92-year-old husband of 16 years, Ted, peacefully passed in his sleep. This time, I shut down, grimly determined to feel nothing and show nothing, while I focused on the business of settling his estate.
So … broken heart syndrome. Isn’t that just something poets and songwriters invented to explain post-trauma depression? No, it’s not. Think: How many stories have you heard about people who, after losing their partner, die themselves within months or even weeks?
Enter Dr. Peter Gregor. The Rancho Mirage-based cardiologist is a product of the rigorous training in Canadian medical universities and hospitals. He explained to me what actually goes on inside the bodies of us survivors.
“It is complicated, and has to do with platelets in the blood that form as a result of the adrenaline,” Dr. Gregor says. “This disturbs the heart rhythm, resulting in what we call atrial flutters. Blood comes into the heart, and then not enough of it gets pumped back out.”
In my case, my heart was pumping out only 30 percent of that blood, instead of at least 70 percent, which was causing my problems. So it is a physical malfunction: The broken heart is real.
“It was first identified in Japan, where it is called ‘takotsubo,’” Dr. Gregor says. “They saw it so often in the widows of the fishermen, whose husbands might sail off into bad weather one morning and never be seen again. Takotsubo translates as ‘octopus trap,’ because of the shape in the heart where the problems occur.”
A born teacher, Dr. Gregor holds up a laptop to show me an animated simulation to illustrate the blood coursing through the heart, making the problem crystal clear.
How do we know if we have it? There are tests available, such as nuclear stress tests, treadmill tests and echocardiograms, the results of which are hard to argue with. In my case, I was initially diagnosed by alert medicos at an urgent care where I went for an unrelated and minor complaint. I thought I felt just fine—but a mere stethoscope revealed my heart rate was 145, which made everyone spring into action.
So why the concern? If untreated, broken heart syndrome can result in a stroke or a heart attack.
Not what we want. What we DO want is this: The condition can be treated with medications and behavior modifications; I had to buy a blood-pressure monitor to record my blood pressure and heart rate every day. I dislike prescription meds because of the side effects, but all I have to do is remind myself of that possibility of a stroke—and I suddenly turn into a very obedient patient who gladly takes her five meds every day, writing down each dose and time. I’m also on a low-salt diet (What about those tortilla chips?) and keep exercise mild (I have to give up jogging? Yikes!). I also have to avoid stressing the heart with heavy lifting or carrying weighty objects—which, for me, meant the abrupt end to performing with my harp.
Cardiologists like Dr. Gregor aren’t the only professionals who can help; there are therapists trained to help you through, now often via Zoom or Lifesize. There are grief groups who meet with a facilitator, usually once a week (though you can join as many as you want), filled with people who are going through exactly what you are experiencing. They do not cost anything, and because your fellow participants understand and identify, they can offer practical recovery suggestions. (Possibly the best one I received was this: Instead of lying in bed and looking over at that vacant pillow and that big, empty space beside you, move over and sleep on that side of the bed. It changes your perspective completely.)
Mary, a local facilitator for one such group, says: “Grief is nothing but a part of love. There is no cure for grief … but we learn to appreciate what we have now, not dwell on what we have lost.”
Whether you are someone who easily shares about your emotions, or you are all jammed up and being a stone, it’s a priceless relief to meet people who are experiencing your same feelings. Your friends and family love you, but unless they are also going through the grieving process, they can’t really help you, and it could be very stressful for them to try.
Here’s some good news: Broken heart syndrome can be temporary. Depending—like so many other things—on what you put into it, you can recover in a year or so. So … take your meds. Make your physical health your new hobby. Join and stick with a grief group. Don’t lift heavy harps. Journal or write poetry about your feelings. (The Rancho Mirage Library hosts an extraordinary Poets’ Group.) Plan that celebration of life or a memorial for whenever groups can safely meet in person once again, or figure out how to do it online. (If you manage to pull off a virtual funeral or memorial service, let me know.) And don’t ever forget about that stroke or heart attack waiting in the wings to get you. You may have been helpless to save your partner, but you can save yourself.