Dying of a broken heart

2014-04-05 00:00

REVEREND Vernon Loker wasn’t surprised when Alf Geel died from no apparent cause last year.

Geel’s wife, Ria, had died months earlier — and Geel (78) missed her so much that he walked around with a laminated copy of her memorial notice.

“I believe Alf died of a broken heart,” said Loker, rector at Christ Church in Pinetown.

“I see it happen fairly often that husbands, in particular, go quickly after they lose a beloved spouse.”

Recent Harvard research shows that spouses have a 66% higher chance of dying in the three months after the death of a partner and have the added risk of a cardiac weakening condition called “broken heart syndrome”.

Last year, a woman from Hayfields, Pietermaritzburg, Yvonne Julius, died three months after her husband of 43 years, Ian, died of cancer, despite being in perfect health herself and only 65.

“In addition to the stress of grief, widowers often forget to take their medicines, fall into depression and lose their will to live,” said Dr Nelia Drenth, a Hospice Palliative Care Association social worker.

But grief counsellors told Weekend Witness that simple interventions by friends and family in the first year could reduce the fatal risks of loss.

Last month, a wedding in Doone Village, an upmarket Pine­town retirement community, was celebrated as a triumph over bereavement, where both a widow and widower had acted on good advice.

Four years ago, Pastor Tom Shearer was worried about Pemby McConnell when her beloved husband, Gerald, died.

Shearer had seen a number of spouses die of a “broken heart”, including his own brother-in-law last year.

McConnell (69) is a bubbly former public relations executive — a popular extrovert at Doone Village — but, still, Shearer advised against her bereavement plan to spend time alone in a game reserve.

“Pemby is very joyful, but people may miss the fact that she also feels deep empathy and loss — time alone was not a good idea,” said Shearer.

McConnell agreed to undergo counselling, which included looking at pictures of her happy times with Gerald and then putting them away. She also put all of her late husband’s clothes away and re-focused her energies on charity work.

At the same time, across Durban, an auditor and stroke survivor, Owen Bates, lost his wife, whom he had nursed throughout a long illness.

After months of rattling around alone at his home on the Bluff, losing his routine and living on microwave meals, Bates took advice from his doctor to move into a retirement community and re-engage his photography hobby.

After a whirlwind retirement village romance, Bates and McConnell married last month in an event that represented such a happy triumph over bereavement that nurses from the local frail care centre sang at their wedding.

McConnell, who is now Pemby Bates, said: “I did ask God, but truly I never expected to meet someone who would become my soul mate during this time in my life. He’s gorgeous.”

She said reaching out to others in need was the key to her recovery: “You need to get involved with something after a loss … I sing at the frail care centre every Monday — it’s probably better therapy for me than anyone else.”

But she admitted: “If anything happened to Owen, I don’t think I’d want to go on.”

Letitia Marais, grief counsellor at the Msunduzi Hospice, said one Durban man, who suffered motor neuron disease, had left a letter for his wife, knowing that his imminent death might threaten her life in the year afterwards.

He asked that she go on holiday to Hawaii in the months after his death and that the family go for a picnic on the first anniversary of his death.

Marais said: “To be mindful of that risk while dying — that’s love.”

COUNSELLORS agree that “everyone mourns differently”, and that, in general, friends and family should allow grieving spouses to adjust in their own ways.

However, the common request to “be left alone” appears to be one exception, with experts saying that relatives should do what they can to encourage widows and widowers to talk about their loss, and re-join communities and activities as soon as possible.

Also, with these spouses at triple the risk of dying in the months after bereavement, experts recommend professional or faith-based counselling, and suggest that:

• Unless it’s a change to move into a supportive community, like a retirement home, widowers should avoid major life changes for up to three years afterwards.

• Family members should ensure that health routines are maintained, since grieving spouses often stop eating and exercising properly, and forget or even refuse their own medicines. Family should mark the first anniversary of the death, as this is often an unexpected “huge deal” for the spouse.

• Though some experts disagree, elder care nurse Elmarie Erasmus said the fastest recoveries often resulted when spouses escape self-pity and re-acquire a sense of purpose by giving to others through charity or community involvement.

• Research shows that grieving males lack the coping skills of widows and tend to decline help, and are most at risk. Experts say widowers must be actively encouraged to re-engage with hobbies and old routines, and, in some cases, must not be believed when they report they’re “doing fine”.

• Except in rare cases, spouses should consider packing away their deceased partner’s clothes and most of the pictures sooner, rather than later.

• Following the example of one thoughtful Durban man, terminally ill spouses could consider writing letters that specifically request that their partners enjoy long-wished-for vacations and new hobbies in the year after their deaths.

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