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Broken heart may hasten death of spouse

Carol Bursack of Minding Our Elders

Dear Carol: I read one of your articles which said that you had lost both your parents in quick succession so I identify with you. I live in the UK.

In early March, I lost my father, aged 92. He didn't want anyone with him when he passed away. Then, exactly two months later, my mother, aged 88, passed away at home. She waited until I was holding her hand, then she squeezed my hand, slightly opened her eyes to look at me and peacefully passed on. Mum and I had talked about the future and I told her I would always live near her, or with her, if she preferred. She had seemed fine, but shortly after Daddy's death, she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Mum passed away within three days of leaving the hospital.

I was able to tell her how much I loved her, but then I had to let her go. I just wondered how quickly your Mum passed away after your father, and if you believe that your mum didn't want to go on without her husband. Thank you for reading this. — Meghan

Dear Meghan: I'm sorry about both of your losses. As you mentioned, I know how hard it is when both parents pass on in such a short timeframe. My parents died five months apart, so we had a little more time to grieve Dad's loss before Mom followed him, but Mom never smiled or enjoyed herself, even in small ways, during the months after Dad's death.

Mom had been ill for a long time but I think that, like your mum, she just gave up once she lost Dad. I believe that both of our mothers' deaths would qualify as broken heart syndrome.

Yes, they had other diseases, but it's likely that, in my mom's case, anyway, she held on for Dad. Your mum may not have known about her cancer, but she likely hadn't felt well for quite some time yet she ignored her symptoms because of what was happening with your dad.

Once your dad died, your mum's cancer symptoms likely became more noticeable for what they were because she could finally focus on herself. It wouldn't surprise me, either, if her grief exacerbated the process of her cancer. Either way, it seems that our mothers' broken hearts encouraged their journey onward to follow their mates.

This is a common occurrence and much harder on those of us left behind than on our parents who finally got their wish. You and I were blessed in that our parents had lived longs lives and had close marriages. I feel, now, that my mother escaped her pain by allowing her spirit to join Dad in whatever way this happens. It sounds as if you feel the same.

This acceptance took time for me, as it will you, but most of us eventually find peace. Allow yourself as much time to grieve as you need.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at She can be reached at