In recent weeks, six elderly people who died within days of their spouses have graced the pages of the Delaware State News’ Obituaries section.
Evan Smith, the owner and operator of Evan W. Smith Funeral Services in Dover, said these sorts of deaths — often attributed to something called “broken heart syndrome” — are not uncommon.
“We see that quite often. It’s typically mistaken for a heart attack or maybe even a stroke,” he said of the condition that causes the heart to stop working due to emotional stress. “The type you typically see it with have been married for 50-plus years with children and (had) a good life together. They typically die within hours, if not days, of one another.”
But in the past year, he said these dual deaths have also been due to something else.
“Pre-COVID, yes, it was broken heart syndrome. In the past 12 months, it’s probably some broken heart syndrome, but it’s coupled with COVID,” Mr. Smith said. “Unfortunately, with close relationships like that, when one catches COVID, the other catches it, as well.”
Mr. Smith said he could think of five or six instances off the top of his head that would fit this description.
Matthew Hovatter, who owns the Rogers Funeral Home in Milford, said he also handles cases like this a few times a year.
“It is a real thing, and it happens all through nature,” he said.
“I’ve been doing this pretty much all my life, and I’ve noticed it over the years, especially with a couple that’s been together so long,” Mr. Hovatter said.
“Usually, I’ll know. I’ll think in my mind that, within a year, I’m going to see this family again because that’s just the way it is.”
Mr. Smith managed the funerals of Milton residents Rosa Aiken Evans and her husband, Henry Evans Sr., who died Jan. 12 and 13, respectively. They had been married for 67 years.
Their daughter, Kia Evans, has fond memories of being raised by her parents.
“I grew up in Milton on quite a bit of land. I’d say about 38 acres,” she said.
When she was a kid and it snowed, her father would go out to take pictures of the property after letting Rosa know.
“He’d be gone for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, and she’d say, ‘Where’s your father? Do you know where he is? Put your coat on and go find him,’” Ms. Evans said.
“Before they passed, they were living with me, and she had transitioned to, ‘Kia, have you seen Henry?’ I would tell her, ‘Mom, nobody is looking for Henry but you.’”
Ms. Evans said her mother, 87, passed first and that her father, 93, followed about a day later.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of broken heart syndrome,” she said. “I believe (my mother) was looking for him. She called, and he answered.”
John Hoopengardner Sr. described the death of his parents, Christine and Charles Hoopengardner, in a similar way. The Dover residents died Feb. 4 and 5, respectively, after 68 years together.
The two met in Christine’s hometown of Boston. She went deaf at age 3 from a case of the measles but became an expert lip reader. In World War II, Charles — a western Maryland native — was serving in the Navy and ended up docking in Boston one night, where he met Christine at a club where she was working as a dancer.
United in their strong Catholic faith, the two got married, and Charles finished his term with the Navy. When he was done, he reenlisted with the Air Force and the couple moved to Delaware to be near the base in Dover.
“Mom was a great housewife and cook and everything else. Dad was in the military and relied heavily on her,” his son said.
“They did everything together,” he added. “The only time they’ve been apart was when Dad was in the Korean or the Vietnam War, and he had to go.” Christine was 93 and Charles was 90 when they passed away.
“About a month ago, my dad had another stroke,” Mr. Hoopengardner said. It followed a first stroke, which happened about five years ago. “Consequently, my dad went blind. He couldn’t speak, and he was stuck in a wheelchair.”
He said that with “my mom being deaf, and my dad being blind, they kind of complemented each other. He took up the slack with whatever she couldn’t do, and she took care of him as best as she could.”
Not wanting to be separated, Mr. Hoopengardner said his mother was committed to caring for his father at home whenever possible. But that was a lot for the 93-year-old.
“My mom’s heart started to fail because she was taking care of my dad so much, so I stepped in and got nurses to come to the house,” he said.
“The last few weeks, my mom’s health went downhill,” he added. “A couple of days before she passed away, the nurses that were taking care of him — and now her, too — told my dad that she only had a few days left, and that hit him pretty hard.”
Charles cried all night.
“The next day, he suffered a massive stroke, and she died that very next day. Then, he died right after that,” John said. “They were in bed together when my mom died. He was holding her hand.”
Mr. Hoopengardner said he believes some sort of special power allowed them to continue their journey together.
“They were both very strong in their beliefs. They were both Catholic. You can say it was divine. I say it was more love. Or both,” he said.
A third couple, Eleanor and Frank Dury of Hartly, also died within a few weeks of each other. Ms. Dury passed Jan. 12 at age 83, and Mr. Dury, 86, followed her Feb. 3.
In addition to dying close together, the couple was commemorated in a single obituary, noting Mr. Dury’s time serving in the Air Force and Ms. Dury’s affinity for reading and crossword puzzles.
When asked what adult children could do to protect their widowed parents from this fate, Mr. Smith had some ideas.
“Socially speaking, my recommendation, which can’t be done right now, would be for families to come together,” he said. “I think affection, love and connection with others might be a way to ward off broken heart syndrome.”