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Can You Die From a Broken Heart?

Stephanie writes about relationships, travel, and entertaining ideas. Married for 20 years, she and her husband love planning dates!

Widowed spouses often recall happier times.

Widowed spouses often recall happier times.

Can You Die From a Broken Heart?

I recall my teenage years, believing that I would die from a broken heart after being rejected by a love interest. This happened numerous times, from age 16-26, and yet, I somehow survived feeling unloved. If you are young and reading this, you probably will get through it as well, although the stress of a difficult break-up may lead to medical symptoms or depression, and in some cases, you might wish to consult a physician (see below).

For elderly people, the loss of a spouse or loved one may leave them quite vulnerable from a health standpoint. Aging and depression can literally result in the loss of the will to live. Relatively small concerns, from the common cold to an infection otherwise treatable with antibiotics, may leave an aged relative or friend fighting for their lives—or sadly, just giving up.

I have been witness to a rapid health decline this year in my 87-year-old grandfather. My granny died in May—quite suddenly—though she had become frail and somewhat confused in recent years. My grandfather had been the primary caretaker for the two of them in their apartment. He grocery-shopped, drove, played golf, and took swimming exercise classes. In short, he was a very young 87-year-old.

Within two weeks of my granny's passing, Grandpa had lost a dramatic amount of weight. He is surrounded by four grown children, twelve grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren. The family engages him in every event possible and he has a large extended network of friends, as well as his own brother and sister who live nearby. Yet, despite a family that is rallying around him, Grandpa's depression appears to be eroding his will to live.

We are quite worried that he will die of a broken heart.

Grandpa is surrounded by loving great-grandchildren.

Grandpa is surrounded by loving great-grandchildren.

What Are the Signs of Elderly Depression?

Depression in the elderly often goes both unrecognized and untreated. The severity of depression symptoms varies from individual to individual. These symptoms are generally characterized by intense feelings of sadness and discouragement.

It can be easy to overlook depression symptoms in older people given the similarity to other aging conditions. The signs of elderly depression include, but are not limited to:

  • Increased confusion or forgetfulness
  • Change in consumption of alcohol, OTC pain relievers, or prescribed medications (not following dosage recommendations)
  • Sudden loss of weight and/or disinterest in food
  • Inattention to personal hygiene (bathing, shaving, clean clothes)
  • Loss of pride in surroundings/unclean or unkept home or apartment
  • General withdrawal—stopping church attendance, quitting social activities, and not talking as much at family gatherings
  • Talking about giving up, or not "being there" for future visits
  • Disinterest in hobbies and/or entertainment
  • Personality changes: sudden angry outbursts, or an attitude of not caring at all
  • Statements to the effect that they do not matter, or otherwise showing a loss of purpose
Granny and Grandpa, about a year before her passing.

Granny and Grandpa, about a year before her passing.

Effects of the Loss of a Long-Term Love

When elderly people suffer the loss of long-term love, it can be described as the amputation of a limb. All of a sudden, this huge part of your life to which you are accustomed and upon which you rely is gone.

It is easy to underestimate the impact of such a loss. Throughout life, our experiences lead us to death and grief: pets dying, parents/family/friends going through divorces, chronic illnesses, being fired or laid off from jobs, or even losing your home. Yet, when you have spent well more than half of your life with the same person, the effects of the loss of a long-term love cannot be captured in words.

Ingrained habits, from waking through going to bed, have involved the same person for years. Now they are gone. Small routines from brushing teeth to brewing coffee can be filled with grief when your spouse or partner are gone. Larger events, such as birthdays, anniversaries, and the like can be unbearable.

My grandfather met my granny when he was 16 years old. They started dating when he was 18—high school sweethearts. Married in a quick ceremony before he headed off to WWII, my grandpa and granny celebrated close to 68 anniversaries before she passed away. Through those years, they raised four children. My grandfather's dad was killed in a horrific accident by a drunk driver when my grandpa was only 35 years old. Cousins and other relatives suffered chronic, and ultimately fatal, diseases, and both my granny and grandpa lost their surviving parents at the end of long lives. While they often bickered and teased, these two had a charming life together. All of us grandchildren aspired to live as "happily ever after" as the two of them.

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With granny's sudden loss—apparently due to a stroke or other brain event—my grandfather was unexpectedly alone. He had just been arranging daytime care for granny so he could continue to run errands and attend his exercise classes. Then, he was planning a funeral.

Answering the door several days after granny's passing, my grandfather received a lovely bouquet of flowers from their church. As he told me a week later, he called out to my granny to come and see what had arrived, before he remembered that she was gone.

Experiences like this can be more common in the elderly, and harder to get through.

What Can You Do to Help a Relative Heal a Broken Heart?

It is very difficult to watch an elderly relative suffer the effects of the loss of a loved one. Each experience is individual and unique, depending on the widow or widower and the connection with you, whether son, daughter, niece, family friend, etc. Other factors include the health of the spouse left behind, the number of other people that can help with caregiving, and underlying conditions—if any—of the surviving partner.

The natural reaction to help a relative heal a broken heart is to spend more time with them, yet it's important to review other remedies that can help alleviate symptoms of elderly depression:

  • Making sure they get regular exercise and engagement in hobbies, like photography, puzzles, and art
  • Ensuring that the surviving spouse gets plenty of restful sleep each night
  • Helping cut back on alcohol use or overuse of over-the-counter drugs (OTC) that can mask symptoms and increase depressive feelings
  • Looking into talk therapy with a licensed psychologist, counselor, or religious leader
  • Taking prescribed medications on schedule and incorrect dosages
  • Helping them maintain appearances with grooming, bathing, and keeping clothes clean
Keeping grandma entertained helps diminish her depression

Keeping grandma entertained helps diminish her depression

You Can Die From a Broken Heart

No matter your age, researchers have confirmed that you can die from a broken heart, which phenomenon is known as stress cardiomyopathy, Even people in good health with no signs of heart disease can suffer a "broken heart" or stress-related heart attack:

"Our hypothesis is that massive amounts of these stress hormones can go right to the heart and produce a stunning of the heart muscle that causes this temporary dysfunction resembling a heart attack," Wittstein said. "It doesn't kill the heart muscle like a typical heart attack, but it renders it helpless."

In vulnerable people, stress or the loss of a loved one can cause a reaction in the body that can lead to heart attacks:

A traumatic breakup, the death of a loved one or even the shock of a surprise party can unleash a flood of stress hormones that can stun the heart, causing sudden, life-threatening heart spasms in otherwise healthy people.

The phenomenon can trigger what seems like a classic heart attack and can put victims at risk for potentially severe complications and even death.

Researchers have found an amazing link between mind and body when it comes to reactions to the loss of a loved one. The underlying factor? Stress. Herbert Benson, a mind-body researcher at Harvard Medical School, observed, "Stress must be viewed as a disease-causing entity."

Women appear to be more at risk of dying from a broken heart than men. Hormones may be the primary factor, as well as the caregiving / nurturing role for which women appear to be more hard-wired for than men. Yet, anyone can literally die from a broken heart. The condition is more often seen in elderly people who do not have the fortitude to survive the stress of losing a spouse or partner after decades of being together.

Anyone who is experiencing or has a loved one going through the loss of a loved one should be aware of the risks of dying from a broken heart. Whether physical, mental (depression), or both, the symptoms of overwhelming grief should be watched and tended to as soon as possible.

In serious cases, medical attention should be sought as soon as possible.

Granny and Grandpa with great-grandkids a few years ago

Granny and Grandpa with great-grandkids a few years ago

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Pamela999 on May 11, 2018:

I am sorry to read about your grandfather, and the sudden loss of your grandmother also. I have heard of people dying from a broken heart. I still miss my father and he has been gone for 12 years. He suffered so much in his last year that I was glad he wasn't suffering anymore, but I still miss him, as does my mother even more so. Very thorough and interesting article.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on October 22, 2012:

Hi Kerry,

I am sorry to hear about your parents. They are sure to be happy together again. I agree with you that having other loved ones is important, but may not be enough when a couple has been together so many years. Hugs to you, Steph

Kerry43 on October 22, 2012:

Hello, my Mum passed away very suddenly an hour after we were chatting on the phone one night. My Dad lived alone for a few months, and then asked to come live with my family. I found this odd because it was not Dad's style for many reasons...

Sadly he suffered a stroke shortly after that, and a few months later, he also died. I know it was from a broken heart, there was no question. Sometimes other loved ones are just not enough to fill that void. You Granny and Grandpa are so adorable walking along the trail:)



Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on February 23, 2012:

Thank you so much! This one was definitely written from the heart. :)

stessily on February 23, 2012:

Steph, The concern which you have for your grandfather is evinced clearly in this hub, which really is a tribute to the loving relationship which he shared with your grandmother. In all the busyness of life, it's easy to keep bustling along and to lose sense of time which has slowed for those who are not caught up in the fast pace, those, like your grandfather, who are broken-hearted and feeling lost.

Well done and heart-felt.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on February 06, 2012:

Brandon, thank you very much! My grandfather has been ill again lately, losing weight. He knows we all love him, and is a private man, so its hard to get a read on what he is hoping for or wanting. Great suggestion to look into that. Appreciate it.... Best, Steph

Brandon Spaulding from Yahoo, Contributor on February 06, 2012:

I appreciate you situation. I think you have some great ideas about how to help show emotional support of your grandfather. It's unfortunate that he is struggling the way he is. I think surrounding him with family makes a lot of sense. I can tell you love and appreciate him. Does he have any unfulfilled dreams? Maybe revisiting the possibility of fullfilling a forgotten dream could be of some help.

homesteadpatch from Michigan on November 12, 2011:

Thanks for sharing. I think just about everyone can relate to this hub. It is indeed tough to watch, and just about impossible to do anything about.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on October 25, 2011:

Hi varonny,

You know, it is a beautiful thing to see the depth of the love shared between two people over a lifetime. Other family members (including myself) will grieve the loss of another life, but we should rejoice in the fact that the two will be reunited. Best to you, Steph

Veronica Almeida from TORONTO on October 25, 2011:

Very informative hub that many should read. It is sad that such thing can happen but it does seem to be quite true. My great-grandma died within 4 months of my great-grandpa's death. But on the beautiful side (if any) it is one last demonstration of the great connection of two people. It makes me think about human connections... living beings...

Beautiful hub :)

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on October 06, 2011:

Hi Barb,

My heart goes out to you and your siblings, as well as to your Mom. 68 years together for your parents is such a long time! It is difficult to see a parent fall into a depressed state following the loss of a spouse. Sending you my thoughts and prayers - Steph

Barbara Anne Helberg from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA on October 05, 2011:

@stephhicks68...Thanks for sharing this Hub! Many early Baby Boomers are dealing with this issue.

My seven siblings and I just lost our Dad, and Mom is having a hard time coping...she misses him so much after 68 years of a loving relationship we all valued. I believe a person can really die from a broken heart. We may experience it.

Barbara Anne Helberg from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA on October 05, 2011:

@stephhicks68...Many of the early Baby Boomer generation are dealing with the loss of their parents, and one of their parents is dealing with the loss of a spouse. It's a difficult time for a close-knit family.

My seven siblings and I are dealing with Mom's broken heart over the loss of her husband, our dearest Dad, of 68 years.

Thank you for sharing this thoughtful and informative Hub!

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 28, 2011:

Hi Patty,

I find all these personal stories so fascinating! Especially the one about the man who talked about his wife for more years than they were married. Excellent point about grief, as well as unfinished business leading to death in even healthy people. Such a sad topic, but I love all the wonderful responses. Best to you, Steph

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on September 28, 2011:

A broken heart and/or unfinished business can cause one to die, I believe. On my father's side of the family, when each elderly relative died, his/her spouse died also within 4 to 6 months, even if they had been healthy previous to losing their spouses. In more modern times, a friend of mine died on his first wife's birthday near the second anniversary of her death; they had lost a child in infancy years before. Only married a few years, he never stopped talking about her and their arguments, for more years than they were wed.

Rated Up and more.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 28, 2011:

Hi Robin,

Thank you so much! The thought of losing a child is incomprehensible. I cannot imagine suffering the stress of such grief. Those doctors were surely right that your grandmother would die of a broken heart if she didn't address the depression resulting from the loss of her daughter. Thank you for the comment and sharing your story, too. Best, Steph

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 28, 2011:

Hi Simone,

You just said it all about your grandfather's passing - "we thought there was nothing wrong with him." Such a shock, I think, both to the surviving spouse and the rest of the grieving family.

Thank you so much for the comment. Writing this has been therapeutic on a number of levels. Best, Steph

Robin Edmondson from San Francisco on September 28, 2011:

Steph, what a wonderful Hub and so incredibly useful to those suffering from a broken heart or around someone who has one. Your grandparents looked like a lovely couple and how lucky your family was to have them around for so long in relatively good health! Your grandfather looks like he has a lot of love and life around him with his kids and grandkids, hopefully that will help him out of some of the sadness. I remember my grandmother telling me that her doctors told her she would die if she didn't find a way to climb out of the depression of losing her daughter in a car accident. I really can't imagine anything worse than losing a child and the stress that would cause could easily kill you. Thanks again for writing this Hub. ;)

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on September 28, 2011:

My grandfather died just weeks after my grandmother- there was nothing apparently wrong with him and we all thought he was fine.

This was an excellent read and it is so important for younger family members to understand what a huge shock it can be to lose a loved one... I'm really glad you shared this information, your personal story, and your advice!

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 28, 2011:

Thank you Prasetio! Best to you, Steph

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on September 28, 2011:

Thank you so much for writing about this. I don't want this happen to me. Very inspiring hub. You share about fact and you come up with solution. Well done, Steph. Vote up!


Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 27, 2011:

Hi Moonlake,

That is amazing about your mother, surviving such losses and then continuing on! Although grandpa probably doesn't have another 22 years, we'd like to think he would be around to his early 90s. Before granny's death, he was so healthy and strong. I appreciate your comment and best to you, Steph

moonlake from America on September 27, 2011:

My mother lost her 100 year old mother in Oct 1889. Grandma had been living with my parents and they took care of her. Then in Feb 1990 my Dad died suddenly. Because of money my mom had to give up their home. Her reasons for living were gone. We really thought she wasn't going to make it but she has, it's been 22 years now.

Sorry to hear about your grandmother and hope things get better for your grandfather.

Beautiful Hub.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 27, 2011:

Hi Jama, Not harsh at all. And I do understand, especially after watching my other grandfather pass away a few years ago. He was done. Didn't want to eat, and I was NOT in favor of force-feeding him. Of course it is difficult on the family members to anticipate what life will be like without my other grandpa, but there is definitely dignity - and love - in allowing him to wind down on his own terms. Quite difficult and lots of emotions involved.... Best as always, Steph

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 27, 2011:

Thank you so much Dorothee - it felt healing to write about this as a way of dealing with the continuing grief from the loss of my granny and watching my grandfather decline. Best, Steph

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on September 27, 2011:

Steph, this may sound harsh, but your grandmother was your grandfather's reason to get out of bed each day. Now that she's gone, that reason is gone. He may snap out of it, but there's a bigger chance he won't because the love and support of children and grandchildren will never repair the hole in his soul that she filled.

I'm glad you grasp that it's really yours and the family's own selfishness that wants him to get past his grief and stick around for many more years. Some never do. The way my aunts carried on when my grandmother chose to refuse nourishment *at 103* is an example. Despite being in pretty much perfect health physically and mentally for a centenarian +3, she decided she'd lived "long enough". But her "children" - one already in her 80s - were going to have her force-fed to keep her alive. Instead, The Cousins (her grandchildren) stepped in and made sure her decision to leave the world on her terms was honored.

Dorothee-Gy from near Frankfurt/M., Germany on September 26, 2011:

Dear steph, this was a great and in-depth article about the physical consequences of loss and grievance. Yes, I'm sure that it'possible to actually die from a broken heart, especially related to the loss of a long-term partner. I wish you and your family all the best, including three wisdom of letting go in a loving manner.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 26, 2011:

Thank you for your kind comments, anginwu! We do feel fortunate having a supportive extended family, and I know that grandpa appreciates it, even though he's sad and a bit depressed. Best as always, Steph

anglnwu on September 26, 2011:

What lovely grandparents you have. They had such a loving relationship and it must be terribly hard for your grandfather after the passing away of your grandmother. Glad that he's surrounded with a great extended family. Well wishes to your grandpa.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 26, 2011:

Hi Dorsi,

I am sure it was so difficult to watch your mother, after your father's passing. There is definitely a feeling of helplessness and, sometimes, even wanting them to be together again, but not wanting to suffer another loss. Big hugs, Steph

Dorsi Diaz from The San Francisco Bay Area on September 26, 2011:

Very well thought out and endearing hub. I am sure this will help many people. I am sorry about the loss of your grandma. My parents were married for 60 years, best of friends, and died 8 months apart. I am sure my mother died of a broken heart. It was so hard to watch. Thank you for writing this beautiful hub.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 26, 2011:

Hi Mekenzie,

Thank you! You are right that my grandparents' love for each other has had a big impact on all of us in the family. We are definitely celebrating granny's life and enjoying the fond memories of her together with grandpa. They truly were a "pair." Best to you, Steph

Susan Ream from Michigan on September 26, 2011:

Steph, You are so blessed to have grandparent's who lived out their love in such a way that the impact of it has touched you, and probably shaped you, in a huge way. Loved the pictures - thanks for sharing them - Was uplifting to see such joy in their faces. The old saying, It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all comes to mind.

May the years of treasured memories comfort your dear Grandpa and get him through the grief. I hope Grandma is still a point of great conversation to keep her alive in your heart's. Great Hub!


Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 26, 2011:

Hi K.,

Excellent perspective. I can see how elderly people would believe that their tasks are done here on Earth, which would lead them not to fight the end of their days. My other grandfather (who passed away in 2007) told me just 6 weeks before he died that he was "done." It was so sad because I loved him so much, but I am happy that he had such a fantastic life and in many regards died on his own terms when he was ready.

Very touching comments regarding your dear father, as well as your own grandparents. Wishing you all the best, Steph

Kristen Burns-Darling from Orange County, California on September 26, 2011:

I know from experience that people can quite literally die from a broken heart, my grandparents were married for 57 years when my Nana died, rather suddenly on 30 October 1997, my Papa didn't last a year, suffering a major heart attack in March of 1998, and then a fatal massive stroke September, he passed away on October 4, 1998. I believe that it is more common in our senior population because they see themselves as having "finished" their tasks and having fewer or no responsibilities other than to themselves; by contrast to my grandparents, my dad was 43 when my mom passed away, and though he was never the same again, he had to go on because he had two pre-adolescent daughters to raise. He passed away recently, and at the end, he was fixated with my mom, we probably talked more about her in those last few weeks than we had in the last 32 years. Great hub with lots of useful details, and touching tribute to both your grandparents. Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 26, 2011:

Hi ktrapp,

Yes. Definitely sad for the surviving family members. And I have to say that granny is buried in the National Veteran's Cemetery, as the spouse of a former serviceman. The inscription - obviously awaiting my grandfather's future passing - is "Together Forever." So, while we struggle with feelings of sadness, regret, or whatever, perhaps we can feel a bit happy that they will be together again when that day comes. Best and thank you for the comment, Steph

Kristin Trapp from Illinois on September 26, 2011:

What a profound article. Your grandparents look like lovely people and clearly they have a loving granddaughter in you. Sadly, I have known of several older couples where one spouse dies rather soon after the other. But I wonder, is it really sad? Yes, sad for the family, but there may be a lot of peace also knowing that a deep, deep sadness has been lifted. Thank you for writing such a beautiful and personal story.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 26, 2011:

Hi Amy, As you know, it is so difficult watching our beloved family members struggle and age. It's been heartbreaking to watch my once vibrant grandfather go downhill so fast this year. Best to you! Steph

amy jane from Connecticut on September 26, 2011:

This made me teary. :( I love the photo of your Grandparents walking together. I hope your grandfather can pull through this and enjoy the family that loves him so much.

You have put together a wonderful and sensitive resource for people concerned about a loved one dying from a broken heart.Beautiful hub. :)

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 25, 2011:

Cathlynn, I know. So heartbreaking. My dad told me about the middle of the night when she passed. He entered in the hospice room and my grandfather was sitting there, holding granny's hand and shaking her head saying, "oh sweetheart." Love to them both. Thank you for commenting! Steph

Annie from NewYork on September 25, 2011:

a very interesting hub, informatative

thumb up to this write

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 25, 2011:

Maralexa, thank you so much! This weekend was difficult in large part because it was my grandparents' anniversary, just 4 month after my grandmother passed. We had quite a scare with grandpa last week, and it got me thinking about how the loss of a loved one could lead one to die of a broken heart.

My other grandmother is still with us, although Alzheimer's has taken her away. Yet, with my grandfather's passing about 4 years ago, she definitely became depressed and required medical and talk therapy.

Again, thank you for your kind comments, Steph

cathylynn99 from northeastern US on September 25, 2011:

calling for grandma to see her memorial flowers - how poignant

Marilyn Alexander from Vancouver, Canada on September 25, 2011:

Steph,this is an awesome story.

You relate your grandfather's dilema so well. It is so hard to go about your day without speaking and interacting with the person you have lost. Absolutely everything changes. Even the things you did with others can lose their attraction for a long time.

Please know that your grandfather will grieve probably for the rest of his life, but certainly for a long time. I urge you to keep talking to him about his love, your grandmother, and keep his memories alive as long as that is his choice. I'm sure you know all this.

My heart is with you and your family. Your family photos, real photos, make your article so very memorable.

Thank you sincerely for sharing.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 25, 2011:

Oh thank you, Staypos! I didn't mention that last week, my grandfather started suffering from a (relatively minor) infection that left him so weak we were all worried he would be gone. I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a life-long partner. But dying from a broken heart at that age appears to be entirely plausible, if not expected. Cheers to you and thanks for the comment!

StayPos from Florida, USA on September 25, 2011:


This was a beautiful and very informative hub! It's also a wonderful tribute to your grandparents :-) Thanks for sharing all the great family pictures as well. Voted Up and Awesome!

All the Best

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