The philosopher Will Durant once said, “The love we have in our youth is superficial compared to the love that an old man has for his old wife.”
The concept that one person can die from being separated suddenly from a loved one spans all cultures. As a physician, I’ve come to appreciate and am much more aware of this phenomenon.
The Scottish physician and missionary, David Livingstone, has documented the phenomenon of Africans who had been captured and made slaves. He says many seemed to waste away within weeks for no obvious physical cause; that it really seemed to be, in his words, “brokenheartedness” that was the cause.
Isolation and even just the feeling or perception of loneliness has now been shown to have devastating effects on one’s health. A study of 7,000 healthy adults in Alameda, California revealed that socially isolated women had a significantly greater chance of developing and dying from cancer. But it wasn’t only social isolation in terms of lack of social contacts that was important, but the perception or feeling of loneliness, or what being alone meant to them, that was just as important in this causal effect. Women who had many social contacts, but felt isolated, had 2.4 times the normal risk of dying from hormone-related cancers (breast, uterine, and ovarian).
The isolation or feeling of loneliness that comes after the death of a spouse of many years, that is bereavement, can be devastating and even fatal. In his book, Recovering the Soul, Dr. Larry Dossey explored the interesting concept and evidence that all minds are interconnected and cannot ultimately be separated. That while “separation” may apply to our physical bodies it may not apply to our minds. This possibility has also been affirmed by some physicists and theologians.
So if minds in some sense are single and unitary, this would mean the sense of total separation, as in death, is in part a delusion. But if it’s a delusion, why is bereavement frequently fatal? For one thing, the need for closeness, or togetherness, has been shown to be rooted in our biology. The body responds to our thoughts and beliefs – regardless of whether these beliefs are true or false. If the will of the one who is grieving is strong enough to join the deceased, it may serve to direct the body to comply and die.
But why do we see a difference between those whose severe grief of a long loved spouse cause them to die and those in similarly bereaved situations do not? If we deeply sensed that separation cannot in principle be final, then bereavement, while not ceasing to exist, might well be eased. In other words, the difference in grief’s effects on the bereaved may have something more to do
with the bereaving person’s belief system than it does anything else. It would be interesting to see a study or review of the deaths of persons who died from bereavement as to what percent lacked a strong belief system of any kind, or faith, if you will.
My professional and unscientifically-structured humble
experience in dealing with those with a strong faith system as opposed to those without has revealed, on the surface, an apparent difference in the ensuing weeks after the death of a spouse. Those who work closely in the hospice programs, along with priests and
pastors, I’m sure can testify to this phenomenon as well.
To have assimilated a belief system or religious faith into one’s world view has been shown to be helpful towards our physical health and mental health in many ways. When it comes to isolation, feeling isolated, loneliness, or confronting and dealing with the death and dying of those especially close to us, our faith may possibly be the difference in how or whether we live longer
-- or die sooner.