Why So Many Long-Married Couples Die Close Together

While death rarely brings pleasant feelings, from time to time we'll see a story about death go viral on the Internet because it touches people's hearts. Long-married spouses that die within hours or days of one another often fall into that category because they seem to remind us that, ideally, marriage is for eternity.

Don't want to live without you

My first exposure to this phenomenon happened when my parents were in a nursing home. I visited daily and knew the staff and many of the residents. One elderly man on their floor had later stage Alzheimer's disease. His wife of many decades visited him at least once a day until she was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. Even during the worst of her treatment, she visited as often as she could. Then, she died.

I didn't know the family well enough to ask if or how the husband had been told of his wife's death, but he was in such a late stage that most people would say he'd never understand it anyway. Yet, while the medical staff didn't pick up any changes in his health after his wife's death, he died within a week.

Most of us felt that somehow he did know of her death and internalized the information. Somehow, whether he was told or not, he knew that his life partner was no longer there with him and he simply followed her. Maybe there was another explanation, but there had been no change in his health until that moment when he simply gave up.

We felt sad for the family in a way, but for the most part we felt that what happened was meant to be. This couple had been partners for decades and the new widower wasn't about to give that up.

Moving on

My own parents' story is somewhat different in time span, yet it is much the same in substance. Dad had suffered from instant dementia after a failed brain surgery and lived that way for a decade. During the later years, Mom's own health deteriorated to the point that she decided to move to the same nursing home. They each had private rooms, but Mom spent a lot of time in Dad's room. The staff and visitors would always remark on how cute they were, since after each visit Mom would take her walker over to Dad's chair and precariously bend forward to kiss him goodbye as she left for her own room. Those kisses seemed unusual to many, given my parents' ages and the number of decades that they'd been married. When asked, Mom would simply smile and tell them that Dad the love of her life.

While Mom hadn't been an active caregiver for much of Dad's illness—that role fell to me—she did consider herself his caregiver in spirit. Through the years of her decline, her pain spread and her weight dropped, but she hung on. Then Dad died. It took Mom a long time to accept that he'd really died, but once she did I believe that she, too, gave up. During Mom's death process, my sister and I kept telling her that Dad was waiting, and that seemed to help. It was five months from the day Dad died that Mom's heart finally quit beating.

There are many similar stories out there, and I see no mystery in the fact that spouses often lose the will to live after their lifelong partner dies. Many feel that they've lost the only reason to stay alive.

Dr. Rachel Silva, DNP, APRN, NP-C, FNP-BC, Founder and CEO of Accessible Healthcare Institute™ LLC and host of "The Nurse Practitioner Show" shared her thoughts with me about this concept.

"Some widowers may not have the desire to live without their beloved," Dr. Silva said. "The greatest depression is experienced within the first six months following a spouse's death. My primary medical care provider stated that his parents were in their 90's when his father passed away. His mother passed away three months later. He stated their love was a depth few have the pleasure of experiencing in life, and it was more of a burden for her to live without him. Although death and dying is a difficult part of life, he found peace during his grieving knowing his parents didn't have to live without one another for long."

Certainly, there are many people who survive for a long while after the death of a long-time spouse. That does not mean that they didn't have a strong, loving marriage. It likely means that they were in better health that those who are ready to let go. They also may have a stronger will to live for their kids, their grandkids or simply for themselves. However, these love story deaths touch our hearts because of the romance that is implied. They remind us of the dream that true love can last a lifetime. For these couples, once they let go of their bodies, spirit joins spirit and then they continue on together.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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