People often talk about “dying of a broken heart.” But can we really die from an emotional heartbreak, like losing a spouse or other loved one? How about from losing a beloved pet? For many pet owners, their pets are genuinely their best friends, and for some, the only source of real love they have in their lives. The pain of losing a pet for someone who is that connected is devastating, traumatic, and often lasts a lifetime. But could they actually die of a broken heart?
A few doctors in Texas will tell you it is possible. In fact, an October 2017 article in the New England Journal of Medicine describes the case of Texas pet owner Joanie Simpson, who watched her dog, Meha, die of congestive heart failure. She had some other stressful situations in her life at the time, and shortly after Meha’s death, she was treated in her local emergency room for chest pain. Now, Simpson did have some hypertension, but no known heart problems. She thought she was having a heart attack, and doctors did, too, as the tests (contrast echocardiograph) showed visible damage to her heart. They diagnosed her with a condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Unlike with an actual heart attack, where the arteries around the heart are blocked, takotsubo cardiomyopathy usually occurs after some kind of severe emotional stress, like the death of a loved one or other major devastating event. What happens is, after a rush of stress hormones, the heart muscles are literally stunned—doctors and researchers aren’t completely sure why. They theorize that the arteries may spasm and cut off blood flow to the heart, according to another New England Journal of Medicine study.
Simpson wasn’t the first Texan to suffer from the condition. The National Institutes of Health’s website shows a 2016 Texas Heart Institute Journal article that recounts a similar syndrome occurring in a 22-year old woman with a congenital heart defect—she had only one ventricle. The woman complained of chest pain in the two days following the death of her dog, and she too was diagnosed with takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome.”
Unless they have other pre-existing health conditions, people who suffer broken heart syndrome will usually eventually recover. But in 2016, actress Debbie Reynolds died of a serious stroke just one day after the unexpected death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher. So doctors can’t rule out broken heart syndrome as at least a contributor to her untimely death.
One of the doctors who treated Simpson, Dr. Abhishek Maiti, was quoted by The Washington Post as saying that Simpson’s case was intriguing enough to land in the New England Journal of Medicine because it was “a very concise, elegant case” of this fascinating condition that research proves is very real and sometimes fatal.
It makes clear something that many pet owners already know: grieving for the loss of your pet can be every bit as painfully traumatizing as losing a spouse or other loved one. And it makes sense, because we’ve all seen the research that proves that owning a pet is linked to better health and greater happiness. So, to dedicated pet owners, it’s simple logic that if you can die of a broken heart when you lose your spouse, you can certainly experience the same thing when you lose the pet you love with your whole heart.
For her part, Simpson says that she’ll get another dog. “It is heartbreaking. It is traumatic. It is all of the above,” she told The Washington Post. “But you know what? They give so much love and companionship that I’ll do it again. I will continue to have pets. That’s not going to stop me.”
If you’ve lost a pet (or a loved one), there are things you can do to help get yourself through the grief process. Harvard Medical School published an article by Stephanie Watson, in which she gives some good advice about making sure you take care of yourself, even as you mourn.
She says to “make sure you focus on you, by eating a healthy diet, walking or getting some other type of exercise every day, and make sure you take any prescribed medicine as scheduled. Taking care of your own health will make you feel better physically and will help distract you from your loss.”
Watson also advises getting out, seeing friends and family—pushing yourself if you have to at first. “Maintaining social connections is an important part of the healing process,” she says.
Finally, be patient with yourself. Give it time. “It can take several months to a year to work through grief and grieving,” Watson reports. So allow yourself enough time to let go, and understand that it’s normal to take a long time to feel better again. However, Watson warns, “If a year has passed and you’re still grieving, or if you’ve lost interest in activities you once loved, your grief may have transitioned into something more serious, like depression.” In that case, Watson says, you should talk with your doctor or mental health professional about how to work through the pain and move forward with your life.