Cause of death: Heartbreak? For one Portland-area couple, their family thinks so. – OregonLive.com
Their obituaries are printed next to each other. Their last names, the same. Their death dates, two days apart.For one Gresham couple, it seems like they couldn’t live without each other.Risa Splawn, 59, died first. In late May, she was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. Doctors said she had a few years left to live. But two weeks later, her husband Allen kissed her goodbye and left the phone on her pillow. By mid-morning on June 10, she was gone. Allen’s daughter Kristen Splawn said her dad’s grief was too much. On June 12, he too died.He was a healthy 60-year-old man. Kristen believes he died of a broken heart.***Risa and Allen’s relationship started as a whirlwind. They were neighbors in Gresham. Each had two kids from a previous marriage. Kristen recalls the couple “barely” dated before getting married.In fall 1994, they headed to Reno. They came home with one Polaroid from the ceremony and a box filled with hotel items, receipts and mementos from their Oct. 7 wedding ceremony.Kristen was 12 when Risa and Allen got married. She remembers the marriage being tough for the kids — putting two families together can be a challenge. But it didn’t stop Risa and Allen from encouraging family experiences. They took the children camping and fishing around Oregon during the summer. Kristen recalls frequent visits to Timothy Lake throughout her childhood.As the kids moved out, the couple’s traditions focused on their own hobbies. They frequently went camping and took their trailer down to the beach. Risa gardened — she grew everything from berries and vegetables to hydrangeas and roses. Allen played golf and watched the New York Yankees. Grandparenthood also became one of their favorite activities. Kristen said the two loved to spoil their four grandchildren with princess crowns, a BB gun, and a drawer filled with Jolly Ranchers and licorice ropes.After Risa’s diagnosis, they focused on making the most of their time together. Risa relied on her faith. But Allen was more distraught.“She had such a strong belief system that everything was going to work out the way it’s supposed to,” Kristen said. “While he’s also a faithful man, that was really hard for him to understand.”***Officially, Allen died of unknown causes. The family opted against an autopsy once it was determined there was no evidence of foul play or self-harm. Kristen suspects the loss combined with possible heat exhaustion — it was 95 degrees that day — was too much for him.Psychological stress in times such as grief can have a severe physiological effect, experts say. Dr. Alan Teo, associate professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, said the pattern of spouses dying one after another is common enough to have a name: the widowhood effect. When one spouse dies, there’s an increased risk of death for the other. “It speaks to the idea, the amazing idea, that at some level, the death of one person can somehow transmit and affect the likelihood of the other,” Teo said.Studies of elderly couples have found the risk of death rises over the following months and years compared to relationships in which both partners are alive. Loneliness “poses a whole host of health risks,” like cognitive decline and depression, Teo said.Cardiologists have their own diagnosis for the physiological stress on a person: cardiomyopathy. Broken heart syndrome.Dr. Adrienne Kovacs, an associate professor and psychologist for the OHSU Knight Cardiovascular Institute, says intense stressors — emotional or otherwise — can leave psychical changes in the heart. Most diagnosed with cardiomyopathy recover. It’s a temporary pain.Kovacs said it’s important to acknowledge unusual symptoms, even during life’s low points.“Sometimes when traumatic events happen and we feel really badly physically, we tend to dismiss those symptoms because you think it’s emotional,” Kovacs said. “To me, anytime we see any physical symptoms that feel serious, we should seek medical attention.” Allen’s emotional stress was apparent to Kristen on June 11, the day after Risa’s death. Kristen described him as manic. One minute, he was planning camping trips with the grandkids. The next, he was distraught over missing his wife.“The last 25 years of his life, they had such a routine. He’d call her at lunch. He’d call her on the ride home and they’d talk most of the ride, and again at home,” Kristen said. “But it was more than routine. She was his person.”***For the Splawns’ family, the losses have been tough. Kristen said she’s focused on helping her children, who miss their grandpa.“Most days I think I’m doing OK,” said Kristen, who lives only a mile away from her parents’ home. Her brothers live in Portland, Damascus and Bend.She paused, thinking more, then acknowledged she might be numb while keeping busy with work and wedding prep. Her brother Tyler is getting married at the end of the month. He’s the first of the boys to get married. Risa was excited — she was going to bring some of her garden flowers to the ceremony.“We’re going through the motions,” Kristen acknowledged.Allen’s birthday is Monday. He would have been 61. His family may go fishing at Timothy Lake in his honor. The family may never know Allen’s true cause of death. To Kristen, that’s OK. It’s more important think of her dad and stepmom’s relationship as solid and inspirational.“No marriage is perfect. They definitely had their moments,” Kristen said. “At the end of the day, they were together, and they would never want to be apart.”– McKenna Rossmross@oregonian.com503-221-5776; @mckenna_ross_Visit subscription.oregonlive.com/newsletters to get Oregonian/OregonLive journalism delivered to your email inbox.