When Lifelong Couples Die Together, It's Not Just Adorable — It's Science


A couple died only 11 hours apart earlier this month. Ruth and Harold Knapke died on Aug. 11 just days before their 66th wedding anniversary. Ruth had a crush on Harold in the third grade but their relationship did not start until they became pen pals during Harold's service in World War II. When Harold returned from the war, “I let him chase me until I caught him!” Ruth once said. Their daughters believed their father pushed himself to stay with his wife despite his failing health so that they could embark on their next journey together. “We believe he wanted to accompany her out of this life and into the next one, and he did,” daughter Margaret said. Their grandson credits Ruth and Harold's faith in God for the “shocking” timing of their death.

There are other similarly powerful love stories that ignite the romantic flame in most of us. High-school sweethearts Les and Helen Brown were born on the same day in 1918 and died one day apart after 75 years of marriage. Iowa couple Gordon and Norma Yeager, who were married for 72 years, died holding hands exactly one hour apart. Pennsylvania couple James and Marjorie Landis died 88 minutes apart after 65 years of marriage.

When couples who experienced lifetime love and die around the same time, it has nothing to do with faith. Instead, studies indicate that couples dying together has medical causes.

Studies conducted around the would on the phenomena of longtime couples dying together have indicated that the rate in mortality goes up among mourning spouses after their loved one dies. Researchers at the University of Glasgow followed 4,000 couples and found that widows and widowers were at least 30% more likely to die of any cause during the first six months following a spouse's death, compared to those who did not lose a partner. Another study conducted in Jerusalem found that risk of death during the first six months after losing a spouse increased by 50%.

This phenomenon is common enough that there is even a scientific name for it: Broken Heart Syndrome. The Broken Heart Syndrome is an impermanent heart condition caused by stressful situations, like the death of a loved one. People experiencing Broken Heart syndrome can have sudden chest pains and other symptoms that could be caused by the heart's reaction to a surge of stress hormones. According to the American Heart Association, Broken Heart Syndrome can cause severe, short-term heart muscle failure and can be fatal. The good news is that Broken Heart Syndrome is usually treatable. The majority of individuals who experience it make a full recovery, usually within a week.

Whether one has strong faith in God or is just a helpless romantic, Harold and Ruth's passing (like the other stories) “is really just a love story,” as daughter Carol said. Lifetime love belongs to everyone and the passing of a loved one can affect anyone.