How Many Ways Can You Break a Heart?

Earlier this week, the New York Times Well Blog reported on a study confirming that a broken heart can, well… break your heart.


In fact, the article gives credence to the notion of Broken Heart Syndrome, citing the Journal of the American Heart Association and its findings that

the risk of heart attack is 21 times higher than normal the day after a loved one dies.

If anything, for some of us this confirms what we may already believe. I remember how my grandmother withered following the death of her husband of five decades. I know how my father’s sudden death in a car accident left me stunned and bereft for more than a year. Most of us who have reached a certain age have experienced the devastation of loss, if not through the death of a loved one, then through the death of love.

While the article at the Times stuck tightly to particular kinds of grief, might we not consider others, and more than the obvious outward period of turmoil?

What about discovering an affair – emotional or sexual? What about a disclosure by a family member that threatens to rip relationships apart? What about any number of traumatic events that undermine one’s identity, one’s beliefs, the stability that forms part of a personal support system?

What about the acrimonious divorce and its aftermath – so much like death? Just how many ways are there to break someone’s heart?

The study in question points out the many impacts of grieving and stress on the heart itself, the sensation of being brokenhearted, and the actual increased risk of heart attack.

But we’re all aware of the prolonged impacts of profound emotional pain – stress, disorientation, insomnia, depression – the impacts on our immune systems, and of course, on our other relationships and general “performance” in the world.

A broken heart?

I wonder why we don’t study the health consequences following divorce or the termination of a long-term union – for both the adults involved as well as the children. Is this no less a devastation for many, if not quite so clearly so?

  • Have you ever been so devastated by a revelation that you felt as if your heart was breaking?
  • Is heartache the great leveler – over love and loss, whatever its cause?
  • Are we more compassionate toward those who lose a spouse or partner to death, than we are to those who lose their family and themselves to divorce?

© D. A. Wolf


  1. NoNameRequired says

    Oh my. Thank you for doing this. I am always suspicious of hierarchies of grief. One thing I was able to discuss very carefully with a friend who knew that she was dying, was that what we had in common was the death of marriage. Hers, pending by her descent into incurable illness, her spouse by virtue of her death, but me due to a demise of affections in my marriage, first by my partner toward me.

    I am not sure how to say this but my experience with watching death-of-marriage by widowhood is that the community is more prepared to be kind and understanding (FOR A WHILE). Then, the needs of the widowed might be inconvenient or tiresome.

    Widow (er)s might not need to ask for the first flush of help. Lasagna arrives, flowers too, sympathy cards, offers of yardwork and childcare….in divorce, we tend to not ask for help. And, no pans of lasagna or bags of gourmet groceries are delivered by the community or divorce fairies.

    BUT, to your point. Yes, to the exquisitely real heartache but my occasion for feeling the muscles constrict and noting the skipped beats and odd rhythms, were the occasions of utter pain on the faces of the children as separation was announced, initiated, and then acted on in patterns of back and forth, mediation, negotiation, and finally, an odd and devastating hour in court.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Not to downplay the overwhelming pain that comes with the death of a loved one, and its finality, but the issue is indeed one of hierarchies of grief, as you say, NoName. And our willingness to extend the same (nonjudgmental) compassion to those who grieve for other reasons – perhaps as deeply, and with potentially equally dangerous health risks.

  2. says

    Divorce is never looked upon as grief like a death, I think. When people die they are elevated to sainthood by everyone whether they deserve it or not.:) When I got divorced I was so happy I needed nothing from anyone. I had my freedom and that was all I needed. Others, that are blindsided, truly can have a broken heart. They are hit with something they never saw coming and they are devastated and truly heartbroken until the little signs appear in the their memory and they start to get it and see the warning signs. Some are too busy with their own lives and when it hits them they are truly shocked.

    Those divorces and losses are different than a planned divorce which mine was. We tried our best to be very civil and really it was just a growing apart from getting married so young. I did have a real heartbreak once when someone I was seeing for three years was cheating on me for two of them and neither of us women really knew about it. It came with clear warning signs which I chose to ignore because my only codicil for the relationship was tell me if you were going to put your dick in someone else’s vagina. Clearly the person wasn’t able to do that. It destroyed me for about 3 years and believe it or not after the break we didn’t speak for 3 years and then slowly worked back into a different kind of love. I now measure my involvement with him by his transparency. We truly deeply love each other but not in the conventional sense and even share benefits once in a while. Funny how age and time change things.

    So yes, I do understand a broken heart. Thank goodness it didn’t really break. My life since that time has been fabulous.

  3. says

    I tend to feel things deeply which is why I don’t watch the news — there’s so much heartbreak around us.

    As for romantic relationships, becoming a widow remains one of my biggest fears. My heart breaks a little just thinking about it.

  4. says

    ah yes.

    we must all be gentle with our hearts.

    sending love from teamgloria (who felt Very Glamorous the other night as we leaned over and took the small lotion bottle and applied lavender to our hands as we were turning the pages of a Rather excellent book and took a sip of tea from a white china cup on a proper Saucer – it was a Very Mitford sister moment 😉 just wanted to share. we felt you’d Understand.

  5. says

    I once had a really bad breakup that made me feel like someone had use a dull knife to rip out my heart. There was a physical pain that came along with the mental.

    It really surprised me by how painful it was.

    My grandparents were married for 76 years. My grandmother died about 15 months before my grandfather. The docs said that while they couldn’t be “surprised” that a 97 year-old man had died, they said that he probably could have lived longer.

    There is no doubt in my mind that he died of a broken heart. I can’t remember a time that I didn’t see them holding hands.

  6. says

    My heart broke recently…a week ago today…when Army Wife miscarried at 13 weeks. Not exactly the same thing, but devastating all the same. I look around me and see family members struggling with their relationships and it tears at my heart. There are definitely times when I literally feel my heart aching because of circumstances. And I don’t like it one bit!

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Oh Lisa. I am so, so sorry. This is indeed a very particular sort of heart ache. My thoughts are with your family.

  7. says

    NoNameRequired: Your last paragraph about the children broke my heart just a little right now.
    Lisa: So sorry for the heartache in your family.

    Your timing is uncanny, BLW. My heartache is immense right now and I physically feel it through my migraines, my fatigue, the actual heart palpitations. But I prefer heartache over anger and hate any day. The loss of a loved one to death can last a lifetime but so can the loss of love (or even friendship). Heartache is a part of life; I just wish there was less of it, in any form.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      If only there were a way to lessen that heartache, Joy. Friends, family, community – online community – whatever helps, use it. It’s tough to bear alone, and you shouldn’t have to.

  8. says

    The broken heart that results from the death of a loved one is different—though not necessarily more or less painful—than the broken heart that results from some sort of break up or betrayal. The typical circumstances of losing someone to death are not filled with rejection, betrayal, loss of trust, replacement… But then the lost love can return, whereas when someone dies they are gone and yet there is usually an assurance and comfort in the knowledge that the person who died did so loving those who are grieving.

    “I wonder why we don’t study the health impacts following divorce or the termination of a long-term union – for both the adults involved as well as the children. Is this no less a devastation for many, if not quite so clearly so?”

    Oh you are so awesome to ask and bring this up! And of course it is no less devastating. It is a different devastation. Some will have less difficulty in one situation or the other, and for many both situations are debilitating. The Longevity Study did include divorce as one of their study areas. Those who were children when their parents divorced died ~4 years earlier on average than those whose parents remained married—or who lost one parent to death. I think that last part was significant; it was divorce, not parental death that had the negative effect in the long run. Of course that study began around 1920 and the mortality rate may have been higher; it would be interesting to continue the study with each generation.

    “Are we more compassionate toward those who lose a spouse or partner to death, than we are to those who lose their family and themselves to divorce?”

    Yes and no. I think that as individuals and in personal relationships we are compassionate toward those experiencing divorce. But as a society were not and even in those personal relationships our tolerance may have more limitations than it does for those who lose a loved one to death. Unfortunately tolerance seems to wane for both situations before a person is through the typical grieving process. We want people to get over it and have little patience while they go through instead.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      As usual, much to think about, RollerCoasterider. I was aware of the study that says children of divorce have a shorter life span, but I find myself wondering about the viability of sweeping conclusions of this sort, and I wish we had more research in process that focused both on adults and children. As for the adults, I would prefer a 5 to 10-year span looking at typical divorce-related stress effects (weight gain/loss, hypertension, migraines, heart disease, autoimmune disorders) – and there are plenty of emotional/PTSD effects that could be studied as well. To me, these would focus on quality of life (rather than longevity), much as I wish that we as a society would focus on quality of marriage – by talking and learning about relationships and marriage rather than jumping into the pool and “figuring it out.”

      But that contrast you mention of children of divorce versus those of parents who died is compelling.

      As for our impatience as a culture, we do seem to see it (and suffer from it) in so much, including the concept that we should quickly “get over it” rather than take the time to properly process loss and learn from it. In fact, I don’t love the notion of “moving on” though it may apply to some people more readily than others. I think “moving through” fits better for some. April at “It’s All About Balance” wrote about this beautifully, last December.

      Thank you as always for your thoughtful reading and comments.

  9. sheila in S.F. says

    The loss of a spouse to death is very devastating. Your partner for over 35 years is suddenly taken away and you are left to your own resources. It took me four years to finally come to terms with my new life without my husband. You miss him everyday. Its tough to be alone after a long term relationship that came to an end involuntarily. Grieving is no doubt different for everyone. But life is never perfect and you do the best you can with what you are given and to lessen the pain. I am sure the loss of a parent because of divorce has its own challenges.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Sheila, Thank you for joining the conversation. I am truly sorry to hear about your loss. I cannot imagine the breadth of that grieving. And it may be that those of us who are divorced won’t be able to appreciate your loss, in part because when our marriages end (for some of us, involuntarily in a different way), there is so much animosity that we are distant from the sort of everyday connection you describe. And possibly, we never had it.

      Perhaps the real message of my musing is this. There are many kinds of loss. We should respect the individual grieving process involved, and reach out to each other compassionately. The dynamic I’ve observed and experienced is one of “hierarchies” of loss. (Thank you for that term, NoName.)

      While I see some sort of logic in that thinking, it also seems silly. When someone is deeply hurt, the challenges may be different, but pain deserves a kind ear and a gentle helping hand.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I hope you’ll stop by again.

  10. says

    The grandfather I never met died, of a heart attack, just after learning that all his brothers and sisters had perished at Auchwitz. Whether loss, shock or betrayal the science here seems a confirmation of what we already know in our hearts—perhaps another question is about how can one facilitate the resilient and loving heart that can feel broken and yet survive and go on to love whoever remains. Sometimes I think that sort of heart is collective and not individual. XO

  11. NoNameRequired says

    Oh, Joy, thank you for the kind word and loving thought. Even five years later, I am still grateful for comfort. PofP, yes on the collective heart idea. Thank you for helping me put that into words. Something about community offers the only way for healing and perhaps preventing that little or real death of a heart “attack”; this role for community is also why, I think, that if in pain, we find ourselves alone or abandoned or even unacknowledged, that means we are no longer on a hierarchy of any kind. Instead, we feel as if sunk deeply into despair, without a ladder, rope, or outstretched hand.

    BLW, perhaps what we have all written here is this: it may appear as a hierarchy with some levels more worthy of care than others. But, as we all say, when sorrow and loss descends, the pain in the grieving should not be evaluated and ranked by others. Simply, that as the Buddhist way would say: to see suffering and work to relieve that condition.

  12. laura says

    I think that the heart can get really tired and depleted. As with the rest of your body. In the last six months I have endured a separation and divorce, rebuilding my own household, a not so voluntary job change with a huge pay cut and a major surgery and subsequent minor surgery. Needless to say, I had heart palpitations, fatigue and my autoimmune issues that were under control went completely out of control. My body is slowly getting back into equilibrium.

    I use my rather dark sense of humor to get through the tough weeks. Like the week that I was kind of fired- I had bronchitis, was moving into my new house, got my new eye prescription for bifocals and the letter from my OBGYN confirming that I was in fact, in menopause. I entered “fired,” “separation”, “menopause” “bronchitis” and “relocation” into Google. There were no entries that had all of these terms so I interpreted that I was the only one in the Universe that had this happening all in one week. It has to be true. The Google says so. I had to laugh really hard at all of this.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Oh, Laura! More than the heart took a few hits. I’m so sorry you’ve been pummeled by so much life in so short a time, and glad that your humor has held up, and helped to hold you up.

      I’m guessing The Google might have it right on this one… And sending virtual hugs and many good thoughts, to help with getting all systems into a better and stronger place.


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