• Research shows that in the first month after the bereavement, partners are at much higher risk of heart attack and stroke, literally broken-hearted

  • Psychologist and Psychotherapist Dr Saira Razzaq explains

  • If you are experiencing bereavement, you can find a counsellor or therapist here

We all know that loss is an inevitable consequence of making an attachment. No one gets out of here alive, as it were. Yet the severing of this attachment is literally heart breaking.

A recent study by St Georges, University of London found that a person’s risk of heart attack or stroke is highest in the month after bereavement and this declines slowly over the following year. This is because grief can lead to a range of adverse physiological responses, such as changes in blood clotting, blood pressure, stress hormone levels and heart rate control – all of which are associated with acute grief.

The numbing, shock and disorientation following the death of a loved one means autopilot is a basic survival mechanism. It has been found that in the first few months after bereavement, regularly taking your medication, sleeping and eating is a struggle. Farah lost her then 22-year old son, Shamil to SADS, sudden adult death syndrome. He went for a nap and never woke up. She spent a year disconnected and going through life in a haze, neglecting her diet and being out of touch with her physical needs. She struggled with anxiety and persistent feelings of dread, as her body was flooded with the stress hormone adrenaline. "It was like an icy feeling closing around my heart. I imagine that this is what it feels like when you have a debilitating illness or when your body feels that it’s not functioning properly."

In the first few months after bereavement, regularly taking your medication, sleeping and eating are all a struggle.

Such self-neglect is not uncommon following the death of a loved one. We are only just being able to understand the physical impact of loss on our bodies. You may feel like you don’t have the right to self-care due to feelings of guilt and despair and your body may feel under siege with stress that you may be experiencing. Caring for one’s physical needs is inevitably compromised by this huge psychological interruption to one’s life. The assumptions of being in a safe benign world, where bad things do not happen, are called into question.

The trauma of bereavement for some can feel like being hollowed out and whittled down to emptiness that seems unfathomable. A loss can be all-consuming, like Angela’s, who lost her husband to a long and difficult journey with cancer: "There isn’t much of me left behind that I recognise, I feel like a fragment of myself". Her identity as a wife and mother was now pulled apart. The loss of a friend, spouse or child can leave us questioning life’s meaning and wondering who we are in the face of such woundedness. When profound vulnerability and mortality stares us in the face, how do we make sense of this experience?

The value of finding someone safe to connect to is important, whether a therapist or a friend. Bottling things up can leave us at increased risk of stress. It is useful for doctors, friends and family to be aware of the increased need for care and support, especially in the first few months following bereavement when stress levels are particularly high.

Losing someone you love can feel like an emotional crack in your heart. You could even say you have a newly assembled heart. A heart that is in fact bigger to accommodate both the ache and the enduring love, and that has the courage and resilience to invite living with loss as a part your life. As you bravely put one foot in front of the other and reclaim life. Like the Leonard Cohen’s song goes, there is a crack in everything, that’s where the light comes in.

Further reading

Overcoming grief through meditation and self-compassion

Bereavement counselling helped my whole family

Grief and trauma after a sudden bereavement

The psychology of grief: cultural differences in death and dying