Can you really die of a broken heart?
Late Wednesday, the stunning word came that vivacious entertainer Debbie Reynolds had passed away at 84 — one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher, 60, another cherished actress and author, died.
Reynolds’ son, Todd Fisher, said the stress of his sister’s death was insurmountable. It “was too much” for Reynolds, Fisher told the Associated Press. “She said, ‘I want to be with Carrie.’ And then she was gone,” he said.
“She’s now with Carrie and we’re all heartbroken.”
Reynolds was at Fisher’s home in Beverly Hills planning the funeral for her daughter who died Tuesday after a heart attack on a plane last week when she may have suffered a stroke, according to TMZ.
Dying of a broken heart is “absolutely real,” grief expert David Kessler tells USA TODAY. “I think it’s extremely underdiagnosed. I think it’s more common than we believe.”
The scenario plays out most often among elderly couples who have shared a deep and enduring bond for decades, Kessler notes. One spouse passes away, and within days — and sometimes hours — the other spouse succumbs.
For parent and child, “it’s less seen, but not surprising,” Kessler says.
The American Heart Association agrees, classifying broken heart syndrome as a medical condition also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy. Women are more likely than men to be stricken, the association says, and will experience sudden, severe chest pain, which is a reaction to a surge of stress hormones triggered by an emotionally painful event. The heart temporarily enlarges, but unlike a heart attack, there is no evidence of blocked heart arteries.
While the condition is usually treatable, it can lead to severe, short-term heart muscle failure.
Kessler has his own powerful insight into the agony of losing a child. His 21-year-old son died three months ago. “I now have a personal understanding on the deepest level” of trying to soothe an aching heart, he says.
The Los Angeles-based grief expert says he worked with Fisher a number of times. Fisher and Reynolds “were so close. I would not be surprised if part of this was broken heart syndrome.”
He recalled Fisher bringing a friend into her home to live out her final days. Fisher “was someone who was very comfortable with death. She took life and death personally,” he says.
For everyday people who are struggling to process the parade of high-profile deaths in 2016, they should not feel unnerved that they are distressed by the loss of someone they never knew such as a celebrity, Kessler says. “Your grief is a reflection of a connection that has been lost …. not necessarily someone you met. If your heart feels connected, it will grieve.”
As for rumblings about celebrity deaths “coming in threes,” that isn’t statistically accurate, Kessler says. “But our minds like to see patterns and organize it that way.”
Kessler offers these words of advice for those particularly shaken by the double hit of Fisher and Reynolds: Do something to help yourself feel more comfortable. “Even though we may not know them, do not take this life for granted. Let me call my mother and tell her how much I love her.”