This Is Terminal ›

Connected Heart Syndrome

Photo Courtesy The Burkhead Family

Connected Heart Syndrome

It’s possible, though rare, to die of a broken heart.

You won’t see the words ‘broken heart’ printed in medical records, though. Doctors instead use the term “Takotsubo cardiomyopathy” to describe the sudden heart failure that can follow extreme emotional turmoil. It happens because the heart can be literally weakened by mental anguish.

Outside of the medical world, the condition is sometimes called Broken Heart Syndrome. But that nickname doesn't tell the full story any more than the dry technical terminology does. Talk to relatives of couples who died of such emotion-fueled cardiomyopathy, passing away within hours or days of one another, and one starts to feel that the term “Connected Heart Syndrome” might be more appropriate. Because, apparently, lifelong love can extend even into death.

AnnMarie McDonald of New Jersey calls herself the “proud granddaughter of one of the world’s most romantic couples.” Her grandparents, Michael and Olympia DeNittis, never broke each other’s hearts; rather, she says, their hearts were deeply connected until the end of their lives, when they died hours apart in February 2014.

“Sixty-seven years is a long time to be married, but the number 67 doesn’t really do them justice,” McDonald says. Indeed, the two knew each other for years before they walked down the aisle, growing up on the same block in Port Reading, New Jersey. Both children of Italian immigrants, they shared a past that paved the way for future happiness.

Rebecca Burkhead of North Carolina is another woman whose family has been touched by Connected Heart Syndrome. Like McDonald, she remembers her parents – Claude and Mary Rebecca Beasley Burkhead, who died nine days apart in January 2015 – as having hearts that were never broken, brimming with love until the end. “They were just always on their honeymoon and always in love. They were never angry... isn’t that weird?” she said.

Today, Rebecca has no doubt that her parents are together again. “He always called her the love of his life and his angel, right up until the last,” she says. “I’m glad to know that they’re together again, running around like young people. We can all hope to achieve that great love in our lifetimes.”


“We can all hope to achieve that great love in our lifetimes.”

- Rebecca Burkhead

Melissa Sloan of California tells a similar story about her grandparents, Don and Maxine Simpson. After 62 years of marriage, they spent their final days in August 2014 together in the same room, reminiscing over family photos. They died, holding hands, within four hours of one another.

“All Don wanted was to be with his beautiful wife,” Sloan told 23ABC News in Bakersfield, Calif. “He adored my grandmother, loved her to the end of the Earth… I know in my heart this is what's supposed to happen. They left this world together.”

These three women have more in common than family histories steeped in romance. They also share the belief that these real-life stories of true love should be honored. Each is working, in her own way, to do so.

Burkhead and her siblings pay homage to their parents by keeping up the family airplane, which their parents flew on their honeymoon. Her brother takes young people on their first flights through the Young Eagles program, an initiative dedicated to introducing kids to the world of aviation.

McDonald has honored her grandparents’ memory not just by purchasing the house in which they spent their lives together, but also by launching a scholarship project called The 67 Foundation, named for the number of years they were married. Dedicated to helping students pursue vocational careers, it’s an homage to her grandparents’ indomitable, hands-on work ethic (her grandmother worked as a seamstress, her grandfather as a cabinetmaker).

Sloan, a photographer, had the foresight to capture portraits of her grandparents’ tender affection in their final days. That admittedly emotional task led Sloan to set up a Facebook page sharing the photos, and, subsequently, collecting more Connected Heart stories from around the globe.

Do you have personal experience with “Broken Heart Syndrome”? Share stories in the comments.

Halley Burns is a writer and editor based in Chicago. Connect with her on Twitter at @halley_rosetta.