- While on a family vacation my husband died unexpectedly.
- A couple of weeks after the tragedy, my symptoms got better, but that’s not the case for everyone.
- I witness our six children navigating the loss of their father every day.
My heart was fine before our family vacation. After we returned home, I had chest pain that needed to be monitored to ensure it wasn’t dangerous.
On that vacation, my 37-year-old husband died. While he was playing in the water with three of our six children, a wave hit him with enough force that his neck broke in three places. It was just a matter of time after that; his brain swelled, and eventually he no longer had any brain-stem activity.
I had never heard about broken-heart syndrome before his death. But I felt chest pain that didn’t present as a
. The medical explanation was that the stress and grief were making parts of my heart squeeze too hard.
I’m a writer, and it will always bother me that no words suffice to express the level of grief I felt with his death. The concept of broken-heart syndrome made sense, though.
I thought of the three or four hours that passed between my kids coming to get me and crying about Daddy hitting his head and the doctor sitting across from me and telling me I would be a widow. I thought of sitting by his side, knowing death was coming. I thought of having to say yes or no for each organ or tissue type, a required part of organ donation. I thought of calling my kids’ psychologist to discuss how I would tell the kids, who waited for news back at the beach house, some of whom had other parents die before they joined our family. I thought of telling everyone — I was the first to know, so I was the one who shared the news, first privately and then publicly.
My heart almost hurts writing about this now. A lot of people describe their chest hurting in grief. Right now, my heart aches in the typical sort of way, though, not in the way it did with broken-heart syndrome.
Broken-heart syndrome is usually temporary
As I learned about broken-heart syndrome, I learned two additional names for it, one literal and one literary. Both include the word cardiomyopathy, describing a disease of the heart muscle. Stress-induced cardiomyopathy is usually what’s written on medical charts. I like it because it’s literal and logical. Stress can cause your heart muscles to freak out 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 by 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 presenting with stress-induced cardiomyopathy, they noted the shape was similar to the shape of the octopus-trapping pot.
I like the name because of its figurative language but also because experiencing takotsubo cardiomyopathy felt as if an octopus were wrapped tightly around my heart.
Some die of broken-heart syndrome
I got better after a couple of weeks. Everyone isn’t as fortunate.
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 classroom, one of the casualties of the Uvalde school shooting. His family has shared that he died of a broken heart, most likely referring to this condition. Their four children will live with their own figuratively broken hearts, having both parents die suddenly and tragically in the same week.
My heart aches for them, as I witness my six children navigating their own loss every day.
Broken hearts are often symbolized with jagged lines through cartoon hearts, but as I learned and the Garcia family is learning, real broken hearts aren’t cute emoji.
We aren’t 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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