The other day I was intrigued by a newspaper story about a couple who had died on the same day. Irving (87) and Charlotte (84) Diton had been married for 63 years and died just hours apart at separate assisted living facilities on Long Island. In a scenario reminiscent of the movie, Dirty Dancing, Charlotte and Irving had met at a Long Island resort while she had been vacationing with her family, and he had been employed as a busboy. They were married in 1953 and were inseparable thereafter.
According to one of their daughters, Irving lacked the funds for a diamond engagement ring. So, for 30 odd years he secretly saved a small sum of money each week until he had accumulated enough for a nice ring. Then, he arranged a family gathering at which he ceremoniously surprised Charlotte with it.
Irving worked as an electrical engineer, and he was very handy and ingenious. Two stories will illustrate this point:
- He took a “selfie” of Charlotte and him by tying a string from his big toe to the camera’s shutter. Remember, this was in the early 1950s.
- He used his skills to keep the same washer and dryer operational for 40 years. I know machines were made better then, but 40 years …? Perhaps, more surprising was the fact that Charlotte put up with the same ones for 40 years.
Reading this story got me thinking about other couples who may have died on the same day and whether or not there is any scientific basis for this phenomenon. Well, it turns out that this occurs more often than you might think. Some notable examples:
- Former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie’s parents, Richard and Joan, married for 56 years, died hours apart.
- More intriguingly, Kent and Diana Kraft (nee Schroder) not only died on the same day right next to each other, but also they had been born on the same day as well .
- Finally, though not married, two former US presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, died on the same day in 1826 (on July 4, no less). Ironically, unaware that Jefferson had predeceased him by a few hours, Adams’ last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives.”
Further research disclosed that there is some scientific basis for this phenomenon particularly among the elderly. Consider some of the findings of various studies, such as one by Dr. Nicholas Christakis, MD and PhD at Harvard Medical School:
- Severe emotional distress brought on by the serious illness or death of the spouse takes a significant toll on the survivor, particularly if he or she is suffering from pre-existing health problems. Scientists call this the “bereavement effect,” but a more common slang term is what laymen call “heartbreak.” The greatest risk is immediately after the death of a loved one, but even for as long as a year the risk of death is 20 percent higher.
- Some diseases take a greater toll on the other spouse than others. Christakis’ study revealed that diseases that impair the physical and mental functioning of the patient, such as dementia and emphysema, have a more profound effect than a disease like cancer.
- The significant impairment or outright loss of a spouse, especially a longtime companion, deprives the other spouse of social, financial and/or emotional support on which he or she has come to rely heavily.
- According to Judah Ronch, a geriatric mental health expert for Erickson Health, sometimes widows are ostracized by their friends who view them as an unwelcome reminder of what could happen to them and even as a rival for their husbands’ affections.
- People with similar traits, hobbies, and ethnicity tend to pair up. In addition, longtime married couples often develop and share similar habits, both good and bad, e.g. smoking (or not), drinking (or not), overeating (or not), or exercising (or not).
- Ronch even goes so far as to say that sometimes the survivor just decides to “let go.” He admits it’s not very scientific, but adds “we see it more and more.”
Perhaps, you have been exposed to similar situations among family and friends. If so, I would be interested in your comments.