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Can you die of a broken heart?

A Widow’s Guide to Healing--Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years

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Can you die of a broken heart? At first, this might sound like a song title or dramatic story line. In actuality, there is such a thing as broken heart syndrome and author Kristin Meekhof knows it all too well.

Widows GuideFor her new book, A Widow’s Guide to Healing, co-author Kristin Meekhof interviewed more than 100 widows, ages 25-80, and discovered that many had physical discomfort and health issues, including heart palpitations and anxiety. At age 33, Kristin became a widow and was inadvertently introduced to broken heart syndrome:

“Within days of my husband’s funeral, I did find myself at a medical clinic. I was diagnosed with bronchitis, a double ear infection, and a sinus infection,” she wrote in a recent Huffington Post article,“Can You Die of a Broken Heart?”

Communication is key; once Kristin told the doctor that she had lost her husband, the doctor made the appropriate diagnosis. According to the Mayo Clinic, broken heart syndrome“ may be caused by the heart’s reaction to a surge of stress hormones”. The proper diagnosis is vital: a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that women are nine times more likely to experience the condition, also known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

This condition is not exclusive to just widows or those who have experienced the recent death of a loved one. Just hearing tragic news—a cancer diagnosis or negative health report, a divorce or car accident—or experiencing a sudden job loss can trigger broken heart syndrome. Do not make the mistake of believing you are strong enough to handle these situations on your own: as a Licensed Master’s Level Clinical Social Worker (LMSW) with a degree in psychology, Kristin was no match for this condition. So what can we do to guard our hearts and protect our health? A Widow’s Guide to Healing offers the following suggestions:

  • Go to your doctor: there are medical things going on with you that you are unaware of, especially during the first year after a loss. If you have any thoughts of suicide, seek help IMMEDIATELY.
  • Make the doctor listen: this is different from just going to the doctor. Write things down, including the fact that you have just lost your loved one (or whatever the situation is), and hand the note to your doctor or medical practitioner.
  • Practice self-compassion: you are stronger than you think–too often widows blame themselves and don’t give themselves a break; self esteem takes a nosedive and they question everything because they no longer have the support system they are use to.
  • Get into therapy: this should not be a last ditch effort; support groups, counseling/therapy and medical treatment should be a part of your routine immediately after loss (and before if you had advance warning).
  • Ask for help: a lot of things, big and small, go to the wayside after your loss that you might be unaware of (i.e. not eating or eating nutritiously, hygiene and childcare). Family and friends want to help during this time so ask and accept any assistance offered (even if you think you don’t need it).

Which leads to another sensitive area: what should love ones, family and friends do and say during this time?

  • Don’t say: Caregiving
    • I know what you’re going through (especially when you haven’t had the same experience): this can create distance
    • You are not alone: the bereaved is alone in a sense; you cannot be a passenger if you are a caregiver. Once the loved one dies, you no longer have the partner you depended on to make decisions or create collaborative thoughts.
    • He or she is in a better place
    • Just give it time and you’ll feel better or you’ll find someone else: even if the widow finds someone else, the deceased can never be replaced
    • Make jokes about the deceased or dying person: hearing is said to be one of the last senses to go; if the person is dying, do not talk about them or around them as if they were not there.
    • Don’t assume because someone appears to be functional that they are getting better
  • Do:
    • Follow through in whatever you say you will do
    • Bring food, offer to do household chores or take care of the children
    • Take the grieving widow or bereaved out to dinner or the movies; sometimes he or she just needs to get away
    • Be honest and candid: I don’t know what you’re going through or how to help you; please tell me what you need
    • Be compassionate (pay careful attention to the don’ts above)
    • Look for signs of trouble: often people are suicidal during these moments although they appear functional. Too often the bereaved is second guessing and blaming him- or her-self for the death.

Kristin emphasized that widows, or anyone experiencing a loss, are touched when you give them something that is meaningful or unique to them. I asked her how to appropriately present this book as a resource. Simply, but with love, say:           , I don’t know what to say but I hope you find something meaningful in this book that will help. She also advised that the worst thing you can do during this time is to do nothing out of fear of doing the wrong thing.

Gut instinctsThere was a wealth of information that author Kristin Meekhof offered and I strongly advise you to purchase A Widow’s Guide to Healing especially during this holiday season. People take for granted that the holidays are full of cheer and happy times but that is not the case for many for various reasons. None of us know when the unforeseen or unthinkable will happen to us or someone we love or interact with. Kristin was only five years old when her mother became a widow; she remembers watching her mother return to work soon after the loss. Following this pattern, and going against her gut instinct (which she warns other widows not to do), she returned to work soon after losing her husband at age 33. The result? Kristin felt as if she was on a treadmill and didn’t know how to get off.

I mentioned this because the above scenario revealed another issue concerning loss for many working women today. Often caregivers have exhausted any personal leave and savings prior to the death of a loved one. Most jobs only provide a few days bereavement leave, if any. Add this to the mounting medical expenses of a major illness like cancer or a heart attack, even with sufficient life insurance or financial planning, many have to return to work sooner than desired (sometimes just to keep their medical insurance).

withdeepakAs you can see, Kristin Meekhof, LMSW, has earned her status as a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, MariaShriver.com, Women That Soar, and other media outlets. Her Rolodex of professional associates is quite impressive and includes the likes of Deepak Chopra, who she said she wouldn’t have reached out to without her life transformation. She perfectly illustrates how one can take a tragedy and turn it into a mission to help others transition through devastating loss, tragedy and pain.

When I asked her why she decided to share her personal grief and pain instead of just trying to heal privately, her answer demonstrated her divine purpose:

For two and half to three years after my husband’s death, I read every book, journal and magazine article about grief and loss that I could find. I couldn’t find any that were stories of transformation for different types of widows. I wanted something deep that illustrated we are not alone; the loss of your spouse creates such a great deal of loneliness.

She adds: starting a charity or doing something in the memory of the deceased one is a great start but will not be enough. Quoting the words of one of her mentors, Dr. Robert Dunn: There has to be a willingness and awareness to do something different. When you find something that is meaningful, deep and as purposeful as the wound that was created, you will then find your next purpose. We at Supernaturally Fabulous Magazine are certainly thankful that Kristin Meekhof, LMSW found her purpose and shares it in part with the publication of A Widow’s Guide to Healing.

Co-Authors Kristin Meekhof, LMSW and James Windell, MA.

A Widow’s Guide to Healing–Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years is co-authored by Kristin Meehof and James Windell, MA. James Windell, M.A., is an author, editor, and teacher. He is an adjunct faculty member in the Criminal Justice Departments at Wayne State University and Oakland University. He was a court clinical psychologist with the Oakland County (Michigan) Circuit Court’s Psychological Clinic for more than 25 years where he conducted group therapy with delinquent adolescents and co-led a high-conflict post-divorce group. He was a weekly newspaper columnist for 30 years, writing about parenting issues. Among his 26 books are books about parenting, high-conflict divorce, postpartum depression, and criminal justice. He is the editor of the Michigan Psychologist, the newsletter for the Michigan Psychological Association. And his Childproof Parenting blog can be followed at http://jwind27961.com/

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