- While on a family vacation, my husband passed away suddenly.
- A few weeks after the tragedy, my symptoms improved, but not everyone does.
- I see our six children going through the loss of their father every day.
My heart was fine before our family vacation. After we got home, I had chest pains that needed to be monitored to make sure they weren’t dangerous.
During these holidays, my husband of 37 years passed away. While he was playing in the water with three of our six children, a wave hit him with enough force that his neck broken in three places. It was only a matter of time after that; his brain swelled and eventually he had no more brainstem activity.
I had never heard of broken heart syndrome before his death. But I felt chest pain that didn’t present as a
. The medical explanation was that stress and grief were causing parts of my heart to squeeze too hard.
I am a writer and it will always bother me that there are not enough words to express the level of grief I felt at his death. The concept of broken heart syndrome made sense, however.
I thought about the three or four hours that passed between my kids coming to pick me up and crying because dad hit his head and the doctor sat across from me and told me that I would be a widow. I thought about sitting next to him, knowing that death was approaching. I thought I should say yes or no for each type of organ or tissue, a mandatory part of organ donation. I thought about calling my children’s psychologist to discuss how I would tell the children, who were waiting for news at the beach house, some of whom had other parents who died before joining our family. I thought about telling everyone – I knew first, so it was me who shared the news, first privately and then publicly.
My heart almost hurts to write about this now. Many people describe their chest as sore. Right now my heart aches in a typical way, but not in the way it does with broken heart syndrome.
Broken heart syndrome is usually temporary
Upon discovering broken heart syndrome, I learned two additional names, one literal and one literary. Both include the word cardiomyopathy, describing a disease of the heart muscle. Stress-induced cardiomyopathy is usually what is written on medical records. I like it because it’s literal and logical. Stress can cause your heart muscles to panic a little or a lot.
The other name is more creative: takotsubo cardiomyopathy. A takotsubo is a pot used in Japanese fishing, in which an octopus is trapped through a small opening in the larger balloon-shaped pot. When Japanese doctors saw the shape of the left ventricle of the heart in deeply grieving patients with stress-induced cardiomyopathy, they noted that the shape was similar to the shape of the pot trapping the octopus.
I like the name because of its figurative language, but also because I felt takotsubo cardiomyopathy like an octopus was wrapped tightly around my heart.
Some die of broken heart syndrome
I got better after a few weeks. Not everyone is so lucky.
This week, a man named Joe Garcia died of a heart attack in Uvalde, Texas. Two days earlier, his wife, Irma Garcia, was killed in her fourth-grade class, one of the victims of the Uvalde school shooting. His family shared that he died of a broken heart, most likely referring to the condition. Their four children will live with their own figuratively broken hearts, both parents will die suddenly and tragically in the same week.
My heart aches for them, as I watch my six children go through their own loss every day.
Broken hearts are often symbolized by jagged lines through cartoon hearts, but as I’ve learned and the Garcia family is learning, real broken hearts aren’t cute emoji.
We’re not made for this level of grief, and sometimes the heart can’t survive the pain.
Shannon Dingle is a disabled activist, freelance writer, sex trafficking survivor, widow, and recovering perfectionist. Her first book, “Living Brave,” was published by HarperOne in early 2021. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her six children.
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