We know all too well the emotional implications of grieving the loss of a cherished companion animal, but did you know there are also many physical symptoms of grief? The connection between the mind and body is not always recognized, but there is real scientific evidence that what we think and feel has a direct effect on our biological systems When we grieve intensely and over a long period of time, our bodies experience it as a stressor and the resulting stress of these emotions can create havoc on our body chemistry and physiology. If we had a physical illness before our loved one died, our grief can exacerbate the existing illness or it can open the way for a new physical illness if we had previously been healthy. Grief makes us susceptible to diseases such as the common cold, sore throats, chronic fatigue syndrome and other infections. Other diseases shown to be connected to the stress of grief are; ulcerative colitis, IBS, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, increase in the stress hormone “cortisol”, increased blood pressure, cancer, and “Broken Heart Syndrome” (Harvard Mind Body Medicine). So, what exactly is Broken Heart Syndrome and are grieving pet owners at risk? According to the Cleveland Clinic, Broken Heart Syndrome is;
“A medical disorder in which the left ventricular of the heart temporarily balloons and becomes enlarged. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, and irregular heartbeats. Symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack, occurring in response to a physical or emotional stress such as grief. Most people affected by Broken Heart Syndrome think they are having a heart attack because symptoms, such as shortness of breath and chest pain, are similar in both conditions. However, those with Broken Heart Syndrome do not have blocked coronary arteries, and usually make a fast and full recovery. Broken Heart Syndrome is also called Koutsoubos Cardiomyopathy or Stress-Induced Cardiomyopathy, meaning that stress has caused dysfunction or failure of the heart muscle”.
Grief is a reflection of the loss of a love that is so deep it can be heartbreaking – literally. As a Psychologist and Grief Counselor, I have seen Broken Heart Syndrome in relationships I have counseled over the years such as in couples where one spouse dies not long after another, and with parents whose children had perished. While there is no research that confirms Broken Heart Syndrome can happen after the loss of a cherished companion animal, I have seen variations of this in my Psychotherapy practice counseling those suffering the loss of a companion animal and new evidence shows that losing a companion animal may have consequences even more dire than deep sadness; it could even cause Broken Heart Syndrome. A 2017 article in The New England Journal of Medicine detailed the case of a Texas woman who reported symptoms of a heart attack, but the diagnostics showed unblocked arteries. The patient, Joanie Simpson, told doctors that, among other stressors, she had recently lost her 9-year-old Yorkshire Terrier, who had been suffering from heart failure and reported that she was “close to inconsolable”. Simpson was diagnosed by her Cardiologist with Broken Heart Syndrome and she later made a full recovery. While Simpson’s case is extreme, the sentiment is common and one I have professionally witnessed. When a treasured companion animal dies, it can literally incapacitate us; it’s an all-encompassing sort of grief that feels very much like losing a family member but for some it can be even worse. Those grieving the loss of a beloved companion animal will experience feelings of extreme sadness, loneliness, confusion, guilt, and many of the same emotions that we feel when a person we love dies. However, because of the disenfranchised nature of companion animal loss and potential for complicated grief, grieving pet owners may be at an increased risk for Broken Heart Syndrome and is a topic for further research and investigation.
Important Facts About Broken Heart Syndrome:
- Broken Heart Syndrome is a real disease resulting in symptoms of a Heart Attack and/or Cardiomyopathy.
- Broken Heart Syndrome can lead to severe and/or short-term heart muscle failure.
- Broken Heart Syndrome is usually treatable, with most people experiencing a full recovery within weeks, and they’re at low risk for re-occurrence (although in rare cases in can be fatal).
- Broken-Heart Syndrome is often caused by extreme stress such as that experienced after the death of a loved one.
- Broken Heart Syndrome is most common when we lose a spouse, child, or any other long-term, close relationship (such as a companion animal, service dog, K9, or military dog).
- Women over the age of 50 are at higher risk than men for Broken Heart Syndrome.
- Countless people have Broken Heart Syndrome and it is undetected.
- Despite its serious presentation, it is usually reversible. The heart ventricle typically returns to normal within 14 days, and most patients recover with no long-term heart damage.
- Harvard Health Publishing; Harvard Medical School, 01/ 29/2020