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Shortly after my grandfather died, I stood next to my grandmother at his grave. Her loss was palpable, and painful to watch. I vividly remember her leaning down toward his gravestone and crying out, “I’ll be with you soon, Irv.” My grandmother spoke these words out of grief, but they were prophetic. Her own health soon began to fail, and months later she joined her beloved husband.
The grief of losing a spouse or partner affects not just emotional and mental health, but physical health as well. Numerous studies show that the surviving spouse or partner is likely to develop health problems in the weeks and months that follow.
A study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine found that individuals who had lost a spouse or partner were more likely to have a heart attack or stroke within the next 30 days. “Emotional stress will clearly wreak havoc with the sympathetic nervous system, and that can lead to problems as the authors described,” says Dr. Peter Stone, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and senior physician in the Cardiovascular Division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for revving up the body’s fight-or-flight response.
Keep in mind that while the association between bereavement and cardiovascular events is real, it is also very small. Although the risk of having a cardiovascular event was doubled—from 8 of every 10,000 individuals whose partners were still alive to 16 of every 10,000 among those whose spouse or partner had died—the absolute increase is small, Dr. Stone points out.
It’s also worth noting that the people in the study were ages 60 to 89. “Often the individual who has a spouse or loved one die is older and part of a group that’s more prone to coronary disease,” Dr. Stone adds.
Grief and the heart
The researchers offered several possible reasons for the cardiovascular decline. These include stress-induced changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and blood clotting.
There is also a tendency after such a profound loss for the surviving spouse or partner to disregard his or her own health and become resigned to dying, as my grandmother did. “There’s a kind of giving up or self-neglect that can set in, and some people just really don’t want to go on,” says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, senior editor of Mental Health Publishing at Harvard Health Publishing.
Focus on You
Losing your spouse or partner—especially after many years of being together—can shake up your entire world. “If the main person in your life is suddenly not there, that in itself is extremely stressful. There’s also the stress of restructuring your life, which has been one way for decades and now has changed,” says Dr. Miller.
Mourning for a loved one is important. At the same time, don’t forget about your own needs during this difficult period. Here are a few things you can do to take care of yourself:
Don’t forget the basics. Eat a healthy diet, walk or get another type of exercise every day, and take your medicine. Attending to your health will make you feel better physically, and take your mind off your loss.
Get out. When friends or family call and invite you out to dinner or to the movies, say yes even though you might be tempted to stay home alone. Maintaining social connections is an important part of the healing process.
Join a grief support group. No one knows what you’re feeling better than other people who’ve been through a similar experience. Your local hospital, senior center, religious organization, or community center can point you to a support group in your area.
Give it time
It can take several months to a year to work through grief and grieving. Allow yourself enough time to let go. However, 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 to something more serious—like depression. Then it’s time to talk to your doctor or mental health professional to help you work through the pain and move forward with your life.