Nfld. & Labrador

Broken heart syndrome: Can you really die from heartbreak?

Herbert and Ellen Worthman did everything together, and that included dying. As Caroline Hillier writes, there's growing scientific interest in whether heartbreak can hasten death.

Ellen and Herbert Worthman die hours apart: 'They wouldn't leave each other'

Herbert and Ellen Worthman died within hours of each other. One of their children said they believed their love was so strong that not even death could separate them. (Ivy Worthman)

The last words Ellen Worthman ever spoke — when she briefly awoke from a coma — were "I'll see you Thursday, Herb."

A few days later, though, her husband Herbert died. It was Wednesday.

Eleven hours later, on the Thursday that she had mentioned, Ellen followed Herbert.

Sixty-three years earlier, Herbert and Ellen made a promise to be together, until death do they part. The couple from Heart's Delight believed their love was so strong that not even death could separate them.

"They used to always be saying, 'We're not going without each other,'" said their daughter Ivy Worthman.

"She'd say, 'When he goes in that graveyard, I'm going with him.' She said when two people love each other that much ... we're not going to be separated."

From moose hunting trips to cooking out in the woods, Ellen and Herbert did everything together — something that stayed true right until the end when they were admitted to hospital together.

Ellen was diagnosed with cancer and given only months to live, but Herbert was only expected to have a short stay in hospital.

After Ellen slipped into a coma, Herbert asked to be wheeled into her hospital room. When he saw how sick she was, Herbert closed his eyes and took his last breath.

'He was going first'

"When Dad seen her, that was it ... you could see the look on his face, and he always said how he was going first," said Lew Worthman, their son.

"He just closed his eyes and he was gone before Mom, and that was it."

On Thursday, at the exact moment Herbert's wake started, Ellen died.

Ivy Worthman said the church minister believes Ellen's final words were a sign to the family.

"For a lady, he said, in a coma to come out and speak and the only words she ever said was that ... God gave her the strength to tell you guys, tell your family, that she was going," she recalled.

'Chased her to the pearly gates'

Dying just hours apart is rare, but it's not uncommon to hear of elderly couples dying months, weeks or just days apart.

Alec and Maysie Moores from Harbour Grace, N.L., were married for 66 years. Alec died just days after Maysie. (Doug Moores)

Alec Moores, a well-known businessman from Harbour Grace, died just days after his wife of 66 years, Maysie. While his children and grandchildren are hesitant to declare he died of a broken heart, son Doug Moores believes there's a connection between the deaths. 

"I think he had enough," he said.

"Maybe he was really waiting to see what happened to mother … They had such a relationship between them, he chased her to the pearly gates," son Greg said in his eulogy.

Alec Moores died 36 hours after his wife was buried. He never retired, and worked for 77 years. His family said he showed no signs of sickness before his death.

Sick with sadness

So, can a person die of a broken heart?

It is certainly a romantic notion, and now there's scientific research suggesting it can actually happen.

Dr. Sunil Shah, a senior lecturer at St. George's University in London, U.K., has published research suggesting that losing a loved one may double your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

"Particularly the first few weeks and months after you lose someone are a time when people are at increased risk of poorer health and sadly, death," Shah said.

"We found quite clearly that people who had lost their husband or wife were at twice the risk of having either a heart attack or stroke in the first month."

Grieving spouses are also at risk for other health problems and because of emotional stress, often don't take proper care of themselves, missing physician checkups and medications.

Scientific evidence or not, Ivy Worthman believes that her parents left this world together – just as they planned.

"People used to say it's just like the movie The Notebook, they wouldn't leave each other," Worthman said.

"I believe their love was so strong that that's the reason they went together — I really believe in it."

Click on the audio above to hear Caroline Hillier's documentary featuring the Worthman and Moores families, and to hear more research behind broken heart syndrome.  


Caroline Hillier is the producer of the St. John's Morning Show.


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