The heartbreak of losing her daughter may have exacerbated the 84-year-old’s existing health issues. The Singin’ in the Rain star’s son Todd Fisher told reporters that Reynolds had said just hours earlier, “I miss her so much, I want to be with Carrie.”
There have been numerous reports of spouses who have spent decades together dying just days – or even hours – after their partners. On December 9, Trent Winstead, 88, of Tennessee, died only hours after learning Dolores, his wife of 63 years, had passed away.
But is such a thing possible? Can grief be so overwhelming that it’s fatal?
Experts say yes. It’s called takotsubo cardiomyopathy – “broken heart syndrome.”
Although Reynolds had been battling various health problems in recent years – including a 2012 hospitalization after having an adverse reaction to prescription medications, spinal problems and a small stroke in June while recovering from an operation – Dr. Harmony Reynolds, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells PEOPLE that upon hearing of Reynolds’ death, broken heart syndrome was “the first thing that popped into my mind.”
“I think it’s very possible that she had broken heart syndrome,” Dr. Reynolds says. “It’s a heart attack type that is often triggered by an extreme emotional stress, and certainly the death of a child would fit the bill.”
Broken heart syndrome acts very much like a heart attack with symptoms such as chest pains, abnormal EKGs and the heart muscle not working properly. Dr. Reynolds says that although some cases are fatal, patients who survive the initial event usually make a full recovery.
The cardiologist explains that researchers believe stress is a significant factor because the attack often takes place in close association with severe stresses such as the loss of a loved one.
“We think it may have something to do with an extreme adrenaline rush, and our research at NYU has focused on how the body can rein in an adrenaline surge,” she says. “We wonder if people who have this problem could have a difficulty reining in an adrenaline surge on a physical level.”
Dr. Reynolds also says that the actress falls in the demographic of those who experience broken heart syndrome: “90 percent of patients who experience it are female and are often postmenopausal.”
David Kessler, a grief expert and founder of Grief.com, agrees that Fisher’s death was likely a contributing factor in her mother’s sudden health complication. He says that although broken heart syndrome usually occurs among elderly couples, losing a child is an extreme and unexpected loss.
“We all have what we call ‘anticipatory grief.’ When you marry someone, you know someday down the road, you’re going to lose them — one of you is going to die first. We have that anticipatory grief about our parents — we know that someday they’re going to die,” Kessler explains. “We don’t have that feeling around our children, so Debbie would have every reason to expect that Carrie would be watching Debbie die — not the other way around. A parent doesn’t have any kind of preparation for their children dying.”
He continues, “Debbie certainly had to make peace with her own death coming someday but there was no reason for her to even think that at this point their life, she would be burying her daughter.”
Kessler says he worked with Fisher on numerous occasions, including a time when she opened up her home to a friend who was dying.
“Debbie Reynolds was a quintessential mother who had planned every part of Carrie’s birthday parties when she was young,” Kessler says. “It just isn’t surprising that planning her funeral was the thing that would finally break her heart.”