How Does the Widowhood Effect or Broken Heart Syndrome Work?


Suffering the death of a spouse is a painful and traumatic experience. Loss of a spouse causes increased stress levels in older adults, leading to a higher risk of death for the surviving spouse. 

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The widowhood effect is the increased chance of a newly widowed spouse dying soon after the death of their spouse. According to a Harvard study, the chances of dying are the greatest during the first three months after the spouse’s death, increasing by 66%. 

Widows and widowers have a higher chance of dying than those whose spouses are still alive. Although there's no clear evidence of the cause of the increased risk of death following the loss of a spouse, widowed persons improve their chances of surviving widowhood after the initial eighteen months following the death of a spouse. After this period of bereavement, widowed persons start to regain their physical, psychological, and emotional wellbeing. 

What Is the Widowhood Effect or Broken Heart Syndrome?

The widowhood effect is also known as broken heart syndrome and is linked to dying of a broken heart when we hear stories of a widowed person dying shortly after their spouse. 

Research links the widowhood effect or broken heart syndrome to a widowed person's grief experienced within the initial three months following their spouse's death. 

The initial stages of grief significantly impact a widow or widower's physical and psychological health. This phenomenon is more prevalent among older persons who've spent a lifetime with their spouses and don't know how to continue living without them. 

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How Does the Widowhood Effect Work?

The widowhood effect affects men and women of all ages and places: excess mortality in older persons in the first three months following their spouse's death. The causes for an increase in the chances of death have not been found. 

However, there's a solid connection between feeling broken-hearted and losing the will to live, and the death of a spouse is a loss in social support. The increased chance of dying is linked to this loss of social support after the spouse's death.

How Can You Support a New Surviving Spouse Who’s Experiencing Stress?

Experiencing stress after the death of a spouse is one of the leading contributors to suffering from the widowhood effect. There are many reasons why a newly surviving spouse may feel overwhelmed following the loss of their partner. 

Some of these reasons are related to not knowing how to manage without the deceased spouse physically, financially, or emotionally. Many married couples depend on each other for support, and when that support ends, they feel at a complete loss. The following are some ways to help someone going through this. 

1. Be a source of support

Loneliness is one of the most challenging and painful consequences of having a spouse die. Older adults, especially, learn to rely on one another for emotional support, love, and companionship. The longer a couple’s marriage is, the more profound the loss seems. 

Being supportive to a newly surviving spouse can mean anything from stopping by to see how they’re coping with the news to sending encouraging text messages throughout the day. Helping a widowed spouse deal with their loss can even mean sitting in silence with them as the news of their loss sinks in. 

2. Listen to them

Lending an ear to someone who’s bereaved is entirely different from supporting a friend whose relationship ended or whose children are misbehaving. A person suffering through the death of a spouse will need your unconditional love and support as they go over and over the details of their spouse’s death. 

They may repeat the same stories to you many times over and may give you way more information than you wish to know. Being supportive in this instance means listening to them as they repeatedly talk about the same things, without interrupting them or offering your input. 

3. Help them get organized

A newly widowed person may not be prepared to deal with all of the bureaucracy that follows the death of their spouse. Being bombarded with phone calls from funeral home, bankers, lawyers, and insurance companies can all be overwhelming.

An excellent way to step in and offer support is to help them field these calls and gather all the necessary paperwork. Help them effectively hold off some of those requests while caring for tasks that need immediate attention. Together, you can figure out what can wait and what can’t. 

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4. Send household support

Not everyone has the jump-in-and-take-charge gene built in them. If you’re one of those people who can barely set the automatic floor sweeper to the on position, consider hiring out some household help and support for your loved one. 

Grieving people tend to not pay too much attention to their household chores and duties soon after suffering a significant loss. A weekly maid and lawncare service can do wonders for maintaining the homein the first few weeks after the death of a spouse. Consider asking other friends and family to pitch in, too, as the expenses can be outside most people’s financial reach. 

5. Prepare a few meals

A person grieving the loss of their spouse may not be thinking of what to eat at the next mealtime. They’re may not even thinking of eating at all as their appetite might be down to non-existent. Encourage healthy eating at least once a day to help them keep their strength up and avoid other health issues. 

Older adults are especially vulnerable and need proper nutrition to remain healthy. Ask for a list of allergies or special dietary restrictions when you’re coming up with a meal plan to get them through the first couple weeks after their loss. Many different online meal delivery services will prepare and deliver weekly meals prepared to order. 

6. Help them fill their days

Not knowing how to survive from day to day after suffering the death of a spouse can be very stressful. A newly widowed spouse is likely ruminating over their loved one's death. Most widowed spouses suffer through a loss of hope and will to live. 

Help your loved one get through these difficult days by doing things together that help them temporarily get their mind off their loss. You can do so by keeping them company, helping them make phone calls, or helping them send out thank you cards for sympathy gifts received. 

7. Take them out for coffee

A widow or widower may be feeling sad, lonely, and depressed after the death of their spouse. Typically, people will go on about their everyday routines shortly after the funeral and after they’ve paid their last respects because they don’t know what to do next. 

Sometimes it’s challenging learning how to offer support to a grieving spouse.  And sometimes, it’s the smallest of gestures that bring the most peace and comfort to a bereaved person. Everyone’s grief reactions and experiences are different. Consider going out for a coffee to ask them how you can best help them get through this painful time in their life. 

8. Help them memorialize their spouse

Getting through a significant loss may take years of grief work and reflection. There’s no quick-and-easy way to get through grief. Part of the grief process is remembering and honoring the loved one who’s died. When a person goes through the pain of loss, they may not be thinking clearly of ways to help themselves find healing from such a devastating loss. 

Offer your input on planning a memorial service for the spouse who died. You may want to take charge of getting the word out through social media and picking the date, time, and place. 

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9. Encourage the joy of living

Finding a reason to keep moving forward after the death of a spouse can seem nearly impossible to do. Most married couples who’ve enjoyed a long and loving relationship will feel helpless and hopeless after the death of a spouse. They may not know how to survive without their other half. 

Help a loved one find new meaning in their life in whatever way makes sense to them. Offer to help them discover hidden passions or ways of keeping their spouse’s legacy alive. 

10. Give them a literary gift 

Books on losing a spouse can be very helpful in getting a bereaved person out of feeling lost and confused after the death of a spouse. Most people who find themselves consumed with loss don’t understand why they’re experiencing some of the feelings and emotions brought on by grief. 

These experiences may all be new to them and challenging to deal with. Many well-written books on grief can help someone understand their grief reactions to get them on the path to healing from their loss in a healthy way. 

11. Direct them to support groups

Many online support groups for surviving spouses make it easy and convenient to join others experiencing similar losses. These online communities present an opportunity to connect with others dealing with the loss of a spouse. 

Participation in some of these groups doesn’t require their members to fully disclose who they are. Members can participate somewhat anonymously if they prefer, or they can go all in and reveal as much as they wish. The most popular website to connect with these types of support groups is Facebook, where membership is free and easy to join. 

12. Encourage them to start dating

Dating after a spouse dies is considered taboo in many societies. However, dating after the loss of a spouse can be beneficial. A widow or widower who’s struggling with the challenges of widowhood may find comfort and joy in a new relationship. Waiting a few months before suggesting dating, depending on how the newly surviving spouse is coping with their loss, might be the best approach. 

Dating doesn’t always mean looking for a new romantic partner. Your loved one can pursue dating as a means of finding new meaning in their life, getting out of the house, having companionship, or whatever other reason benefits them. 

The Widowhood Effect on a Broken Heart

Many men and women who suffer the death of a spouse will feel the effect of a broken heart and the loss of will to live. These are normal grief reactions regardless of the length of the relationship. Helping a newly widowed spouse get through the initial stages of grief may lessen the chances of the widowhood effect taking hold. 

  1. ‘Widowhood effect’ greatest in first three months. News, Harvard School of Public Health, 2021.

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