I clearly remember the day of my grandmother’s funeral, as if it were just yesterday. I was 13 years old, and it was the first funeral I ever attended. Grandma was in her 70’s and had died on my mother’s birthday, after being sick off and on for a year. My grandfather was apparently sad throughout the day, but what I remember most was the conversation we had that evening.
We had returned to their farmhouse from the cemetery. Grandpa went to lie down, and my mother sent me in to "sit with him." Grandpa began to talk, but instead of talking about Grandma, he shared with me several family secrets. These were stories he wanted me to know "before he died." Dealing with the grief of losing my grandmother, I didn’t want to think about losing him too. I discouraged him from sharing, telling him that we would have plenty of time to talk about family secrets—it was Grandma we’d lost, not him. Grandpa was adamant that the time was right.
What I didn’t understand at 13 was that my grandfather was confronting his own mortality while he was grieving the loss of my grandmother. Her death was also the cause of a grief so intense, that it would lead to his death as well.
Grandpa and Grandma had been husband and wife, best friends, and co-workers. They worked the farm their entire lives. At times, it was just the two of them—he farmed and she ran the home and cared for him. At other times, they had a hired crew—he supervised and she cooked for the whole lot of them. They ate their meals together, either at the kitchen table or from the tailgate of his pick-up in the field. He went everywhere she went. She never learned to drive, so she depended on him for transportation. He shopped with her, attended church with her, and took her to her "club" meetings. They had done life together, and now she was gone.
Grandpa’s sadness never left. In fact, his grief intensified over the coming months. He missed her more each day. During the first year after her death, Grandpa would drive the 45 minutes to visit my mother, my brother, and me. He occasionally attempted to cook and clean. He visited his brother and sister on their nearby farm.
After that first year though, we saw him less. When we visited him, we noticed that he rarely cooked or cleaned. His visits to his brother and sister became infrequent. They had to call or drive over to check on him. Besides his grief, his health was good. Although he was well into his 70’s, he was still up at dawn each morning. He kept his crops going—in fact, he poured himself into his work.
Although he was obviously depressed, I still thought that we had plenty of time with him. I was shocked the day my mother came to school and told me he had died. It had been less than two years since my grandmother’s death. He woke up that morning and dressed for work, but had a heart attack and died. He called his brother, but by the time family had arrived, it was too late.
I always believed that he died from a broken heart. He missed my grandmother so intensely that he couldn’t bear life without her. I didn’t realize how common this was until my boss handed me a story this week entitled, "Death from a Broken Heart" (from WebMD, Nov. 24, 2003).
"Stories do, indeed, abound of spousal grief turning deadly," writes Dulce Zamora. She quotes studies that link grief to higher risk for heart disease, cancer, depression, alcoholism, and suicide, but points out that grief doesn’t affect everyone the same.
For many, the day-to-day life without their partners will never be the same. "The severe shock and sorrow can be enough for someone to want to follow their companion to death, to make them disillusioned with the medical profession so as not to seek care when needed, to manifest the same symptoms as experienced by the deceased, or perhaps be prone to accidents since they lose focus of the everyday world," she explains.
While life won’t ever be the same, life can be "ok" even for those grieving the loss of a spouse. Mourning is a complicated matter, but the grieving can find a variety of resources to help them day to day. Books, web sites, grief counselors, and support groups can all be helpful. Whichever method a mourner chooses, three things are vital for all who are grieving.
First, Dulce says, is to accept that there is no timetable for grieving. Some may hurt for months after the loss of a spouse, others for years. The grieving shouldn’t feel pressure to simply "get over it" or "move on," but should experience their grief at their own pace.
Second, take care of the basics. Eat well, drink plenty of water, try to get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. Not only will these activities ease the effects of grief but they also help reduce the risk of illness.
Finally, mourners need to find a way to express their grief. Talking, writing, volunteering, finding a new hobby, punching a bag, or hugging a loved one are all great ways to express and work through grief.
If you know someone who is grieving, offer them a listening ear, a helping hand, or simply a warm hug. Find out how they need you to help—not what you think they need, but what they truly want from you.
If we had known how to help my grandfather through his grief, we may have had more time with him. Now my memories serve as a spark to help others, in hopes of preventing another death from a broken heart.