The loss of someone close is an excruciating experience. But can it actually kill you? According to a recent study, reported by Eleanor Bradford over at the BBC — “Bereaved parents die of ‘broken heart'” — parents who lose a baby are themselves four times more likely to die in the decade following the child’s death.
Some of the deaths were related to suicide or stress, though it’s unclear how many. One theory is that the stress of grief can induce significant physical trauma, for example by suppressing the immune system and making the bereaved parent more susceptible to disease. Another theory is that children who die young are more common to parents who are already less than optimally healthy. The risk of premature death lessens over time, presumably as the sharp effects of immediate grief subside, but remains raised for mothers even 30 years after the death of the baby.
This isn’t the first study linking grief to premature death. Previous studies have linked the death of a spouse to premature death, the cause sometimes linked to a “broken heart.” Researchers at Harvard University had dubbed it the “widowhood effect,” and among elderly couples, men are more likely to die shortly after the death of a spouse than women. A recent story attempted to explain the gender component, positing that women seek more connections with more people, which can help them rebuild after the death of a spouse, while men after pursue independence, which can lead to greater social isolation after a spouse dies.