It’s hard enough to lose one parent. Losing two within months is incomprehensible. When I left my parents’ Michigan apartment last month, I couldn’t believe it would be for the last time. I’ve replayed phone messages so that I could hear their voices again. And each morning, I look at Dad’s watch on my wrist, thinking it should be on his.
Two days before my dad died, I celebrated the first Mother’s Day without my mom. Now, I’m marking the first Father’s Day without my dad.
As I’ve mourned my parents, I’ve been struck by how many stories I’ve heard about husbands and wives dying soon after their spouses. One of my high school teachers lost both parents within a year; so did a journalist friend in Los Angeles. My rabbi told me his parents died only months apart.
My mom buried both of her parents within the same week in April 1979, when I was 5. My zaydee died first, unable to fathom life without his wife, who lay dying in the hospital. My bubbe died during his funeral two days later.
I wondered whether there was more to this than coincidence, and sure enough, there’s a well-documented “widowhood effect.” Those who lose a spouse are about 40 percent more likely to die within six months than those with living spouses. The effect has been found in a host of countries, across a range of ages, in widows and in widowers — though men are more likely to die soon after losing spouses than women are.
S.V. Subramanian, a professor of population health and geography at Harvard University, co-wrote a review published in 2011 that looked at more than a dozen studies on the effect. “We never say that grief is a disease,” he told me. “But what some of this research is showing is that at older ages, grief can make you more vulnerable to mortality.”
Subramanian said his uncle’s parents died within days of one another.
There are a variety of theories about why this happens. Perhaps it’s the emotional toll — the grief that accompanies a broken heart. Perhaps there’s a practical explanation — a wife or husband may have provided support in the form of reminders to take medication. Perhaps it’s that a surviving spouse may be less active and feel less of a sense of responsibility after a partner is gone, contributing to a decline in health.
For my dad, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, his heartbreak was evident from the start. I’d never seen him cry as he did in the minutes after we disconnected the ventilator keeping my mother alive back in January. He typically kept his emotions well contained, and it was agonizing to watch him overcome by grief.