Died of a Broken Heart

My great grandparents’ wedding portrait seems unusual to me for the late nineteenth century. So many portraits from that time are stiff. June_2008_mailgooglecomThe bride and Groom either stand rigidly beside one another, staring stoically at the camera, or lean away from each other as if to assure everyone of their chastity. But Maude Elizabeth Brunt and John Enoch Groberg lean towards each other. Her smile has always reminded me of the Mona Lisa. There is no stiffness, no fear in either bride or groom. I imagine that John Enoch has his arm around Maude’s waist, beyond the view of the camera lens. There is a tenderness in the portrait, a quiet pronouncement of “We belong together!”

Maude died twelve days after delivering her third child and first daughter—her namesake. The Groberg boys, Roy and Delbert {my grandfather}, were farmed out to relatives while John Enoch grieved.

But the grief didn’t end. Only a year later, the boys were summoned to their father’s bedside. This was my grandfather’s earliest memory. His father kissed them each and said simply, “Be good boys.”

I believe the death certificate says that John Enoch Groberg died of tuberculosis. The family has always said that he died of a broken heart. I believe the family’s version.

Nearly a century later, Delbert’s wife of seventy-three years (Jennie Holbrook) passed away. Nine months later, Delbert followed her. It was no surprise that their deaths came so close together. We had always said that when one of them died, the other would not last long.

On April 7th, I wrote about the death of my sister-in-law, Lynda. I wrote about the body-bending sobs my husband and my father-in-law heaved as the casket was closed. I did not talk about my mother-in-law, except to recall the night before Lynda’s death when Grandma hugged her, saying, “I didn’t give you a hug last time.”

At the funeral, Grandma did not sob. She was remarkably controlled, as I perceived it. She gracious to all guests at the viewing, complimentary of the speakers, accepting of God’s apparent will in the taking of her daughter. She dabbed her eyes a few times, but she never collapsed in grief.

Not there.

Today is June 23. I believe Grandma’s decline began sometime before the end of April. Perhaps it began at the exact moment that my husband and father-in-law let their cries loose. Loss of appetite, loss of desire to socialize. We got a call from the assisted care center where she and Grandpa live. “Just wanted you to know that your mother had a little fall last night. Nothing serious, but we wanted to let you know.”

Within a week, we had yet another call claiming to be “nothing serious,” but informing us that there had been another fall. Soon, Grandma was not getting out of bed at all.

Last week, the Young brothers gathered and decided to hospitalize their mother. When she was admitted to the hospital, her blood pressure was dangerously low, she was dehydrated, and her white cell count indicated a widespread infection.

She has been in the ICU for five days now. She still doesn’t move. She wears an oxygen mask which looks like a kindly version of Darth Vader’s. It is transparent except for blue Velcro straps, and covers her entire face.

I went to the hospital twice today. The first time, I took Grandpa. If I were to simply transcribe his words without telling you his age, or conveying the almost impossible slowness with which they were delivered, you might think it a courtship speech:

“Hello sweetheart. You look beautiful, even with that mask. I can’t kiss your lips when you’re wearing the mask, but I’ll kiss them soon. I’ll kiss them soon. One thing—you need to eat. Can you eat, please? Your body needs the nutrients. I love you. Please eat…”

My second visit, later in the day, was fortuitous, because Grandma’s doctor was there. The nurse had been trying to decide who to call when I walked in.

The doctor was reviewing Grandma’s DNR order with her.

“So if you stop breathing, you do NOT want us to put you on a ventilator. Is that your wish?”

A feeble nod.

“You don’t want us to try to save you, is that correct?”

Another nod.

Dylan Thomas’s famous poem flitted through my mind: “And you, my [mother], there on that sad height/Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light!”

I spoke with the doctor alone. “Are you sure she understands what this means?” I asked.

He indicated that she had written her wishes back in 2003 and had never varied from them.

“I don’t know if anyone has mentioned what she’s dealing with emotionally,” I said. “She lost her baby daughter on April 7th. Couldn’t that have something to do with this?”

He nodded. “Especially in older bodies, grief weakens them. They become more susceptible.”

As I write this, my mother-in-law is still alive. She may recover and live for many more years. But if not…

Oh grandpa! How solitary he looked when I returned him to the assisted care center! So slow, so alone. So familiar.

I believe our hearts can be broken, and we can die of sorrow. Our death certificates will never acknowledge that; there will always be a secondary cause.

In the final scene of King Lear, Kent watches Lear (who has just lost everything he ever loved) die. “Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass!” says Kent. “He hates him much
That would upon the rack of this tough world/ Stretch him out longer.”

I would guess that there are many tombstones which carry the family’s version of cause of death: “Died of a broken heart.” I haven’t seen such an epitaph yet, but I’m quite sure they exist. I think I’ll start looking for them.


  1. I certainly believe that death can occur this way. My grandfather collapsed in the doorway of his home returning from his wife’s funeral. 3 months later he died. He was distraught from my Gran’s passing and longed to be with her. Thankfully his physical body wanted what his spirit was grieving as well.

  2. Being the one left behind is so much more difficult than being the one who leaves. We will pray that your family will be comforted in their grief.


  3. Margaret, I have no time, but I want to tell you what a beautiful post this is – and how true your conclusion is.

    God bless your grandparents – and all of your family.

  4. Amazing insight, Margaret. To a large extent, I am defined by the grief I feel at the deaths of my loved ones. I don’t understand why I—or anyone—feels so badly, if it’s ingrained into our spirits that we are eternal. But I do feel ripped in half. And my heart goes out.

  5. There are at least two reasonable observations to support at least some deaths from bereavement. First is a syndrome called Tako-tsubo (or catecholamine) cardiomyopathy. Second is observational data that in older patients the death of a spouse confers an increased risk of death over the next 6-12 months. The skeptics have said it’s because the spouse was giving the index patient their medications, but I think that’s probably false.

    And intubation with lung life support in settings like this does not generally end well. I don’t know that I personally would dispute her wishes not to be placed on the mechanical ventilator.

  6. Both of my grandfathers died within 4 months of their wife’s passing. In fact all four grandparents died within 16 months of each other. It was an incredibly difficult time for us all. In each couple, the wife had been the healthier one, and I think that she had been the one that gave the other the will to live despite the medical problems.

  7. OK, Steve Evans: If you are in control; No more back to back posts like Margaret and Cynthia without a warning of what’s coming. These need ‘K’ for Kleenex.

  8. Bob, I am not in control. Weep away.

  9. This is a beautiful post. It reminds me how lucky people are who grow old together and share that kind of deep love. It makes me want to have that as well.

  10. Steve is lying. He’s totally in control. All I submitted to him was, “I want to write about people dying of broken hearts. I have the basic story. Could you make it a little more sentimental and then post it?” THANKS, STEVE!!

    Seriously, the ICU is quite something right now. We had a shooting in Lehi, Utah yesterday. A police officer was shot during a routine traffic stop. The woman who shot him was shot and killed by other policemen. The critically wounded officer was life-flighted in to the same hospital where Grandma is. So whenever I’ve gone into the ICU, have passed through the crowd of policemen and family members/friends of the one who was shot. People have sometimes assumed I belonged to that tragedy, rather than the one I am actually a part of. Our dramas are intersecting. I pass through theirs to get to Grandma.

  11. Annegb–I wanted you to know that I’ve been thinking about your words: “I am defined by the grief I feel…”

    I think those are remarkable, insightful words.

  12. Margaret, I’ve been trying to think of something to say here all day- and I just can’t add anything, but I wanted to thank you for sharing. I, too, think people can and do die of broken hearts.

  13. cj douglass says:

    It seems to me that dying of a broken heart is evidence that you experienced the deepest kind of love during your life. Its actually quite wonderful to be reminded that that kind of love exists.

  14. sister blah 2 says:

    Margaret, I’ve never seen a photo like that one. (from that era) What a special treasure for your family.

  15. I wonder if Delbert died, not so much from a broken heart, as from being done with this life. It’s conceivable to me that, having lived a long life, feeling the infirmities of one’s aged body, and missing the one who has gone before, that one can wish to be finished with this mortal life, and ready for the next stage.

    As a pediatric ICU nurse, I see families in many of the acute stages of grief and loss. At these times, it’s hard to help them prepare if there has been no other contemplation of the beyond. How can I convince someone of the immortality of the soul while all they can see is the deterioration of the body?

  16. Dora–I can’t imagine how somebody gets through such times without a belief in something beyond this life. And I cannot imagine dealing with the death of a child. You must have some remarkable gifts to be able to help people negotiate a grief so deep.

  17. My paternal grandmother survived my paternal grandfather about 30 years. My mother died twenty-two years ago, and my father is still alive. Now you know the roots of my stone-cold heart.

  18. Steve Evans says:


  19. How about this:
    A friend of mind lost her husband to cancer a little over a decade ago. She is convinced that his cancer was partially a result of his not fully grieving his own father’s death–that the internalized sorrow eventually worked its way into his cells.

  20. July 5th, 2008

    My mother-in-law, Ruth Wilson Young, passed away in the hospital this afternoon at 2:20.

  21. Please accept my condolences. I know this is hard for all of you.

  22. Steve Evans says:

    Margaret, I’m so sorry. Heartfelt condolences to you and Bruce.

  23. Researcher says:

    Best wishes to you and your family and may the blessings of the Lord be with you as you mourn the loss of your mother and grandmother.

  24. Mark Brown says:

    I’m sorry to hear this Margaret. You have my condolences.

  25. Amen to what everyone else has said. Please let Bruce know that we are thinking of and praying for him – and you, as well.

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