The story of Will and Judy Webb was recently featured on national newscasts. Not because of any explosion on social media, but due to the simple way they died — together, holding hands right up until the end.
The two met when they were both 14. A few years later, Will joined the Army and served in Korea — frequent letters sustained the connection.
The relationship culminated in marriage on February 16, 1963.
For the next 56 years, the bond only deepened. This in a country where the divorce rate is over 40 percent and the average first marriage lasts 8.2 years.
A few months ago, Judy became seriously ill; the stress of Judy’s condition severely impacted Will.
For a time, the two were treated in separate hospitals. Eventually reunited in one hospice, their beds were pushed together, so that they could hold hands.
When Will saw his wife come into the room, he said, “Mama,” the last utterance of his life.
Will died first, Judy followed a few hours later.
They will both be cremated.
A touching story of lasting love – but the Webb narrative is not all that uncommon.
In 2015, ex-NFL quarterback, Doug Flutie, had a very similar experience. His parents, Richard and Joan, who had also been together for 56 years, passed away an hour apart — Richard was being treated in a hospital when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Within the hour, Joan succumbed to sudden heart failure.
“They say you can die of a broken heart and I believe it,” Flutie commented.
This writer’s in-laws were married 68 years and died less than five days apart.
And the relationship does not have to be a spousal one for a so-called “paired death.”
Legendary actress Debbie Reynolds, 84, died on December 28, 2016 at the Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, one day following the unexpected passing of her daughter Carrie Fisher. Fisher was 60 when she was felled by cardiac arrest, complicated by years of drug addiction.
Later, Todd Fisher said his mother had been seized by a stroke while the family was planning Carrie’s memorial service. Todd believed that Debbie essentially “willed herself to die — she said she wanted to be with Carrie.”
Turns out there is scientific evidence which supports the notion that these types of events are related to emotional factors. As song writer Alan Lerner asserted, “there is more to us than surgeons can remove.”
First documented in Japanese research in 1990, Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy (colloquially referred to as “Broken Heart Syndrome”) is a very real phenomenon.
Japanese cardiologists began recognizing a pattern in emergency room patients complaining of heart pains — these patients, who had no history of heart disease, had left ventricles ballooning in size due to an excessive release of stress hormones. The common denominator was that all the patients had just experienced a sudden shock, frequently the death of a significant other.
The term Takotsubo was applied because the ballooning gave the heart the appearance of a Japanese fisherman’s octopus trap — a Takotsubo.
Now also known as “the widowhood effect,” further research has demonstrated that within three months of one partner’s demise, the other partner has somewhere between a 30 and 90 percent chance of joining them in the hereafter.
In their landmark 2008 study, Drs. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard and Felix Elwert of the University of Wisconsin obtained data concerning more than 300,000 elderly married couples in the United States — this longitudinal study followed the subjects from 1993 to 2002.
The results indisputably found that “mortality after widowhood is significantly elevated for both husbands and wives.” This increased likelihood of death is, according to Christakis and Elwert, “one of the best documented examples of the effect of social relations on health.”
Hospice nurse and author Barbara Karnes sums up the subject: “when one dies, the other may die…life has a purpose which we may never understand and when that purpose has been accomplished, then death comes.”