Home / Health / Cause of death: heartache? For a couple from the Portland area, their family thinks so.

Cause of death: heartache? For a couple from the Portland area, their family thinks so.

Their obituaries are printed next to each other. Their surnames, the same ones. Their date of death, two days apart.

For a Gresham couple, it seems they could not live without each other.

Risa Splawn, 59, died first. In late May, pulmonary fibrosis was diagnosed. The doctors said that he had a few years left to live. But two weeks later, her husband Allen kissed her goodbye and left the phone on her pillow. In the middle of the morning of June 10, she was gone.

Allen's daughter, Kristen Splawn, said her father's grief was too much. On June 12, he too died.

He was a healthy man, 60 years old. Kristen believes that he died of a broken heart.


The relationship between Risa and Allen started as a whirlwind. They were neighbors in Gresham. Each had two children from a previous marriage. Kristen remembers that the "barely" couple was old before getting married.

In the fall of 1994, they headed for Reno. They returned home with a Polaroid ceremony and a box filled with hotel items, receipts and souvenirs from their wedding ceremony on October 7.

Kristen was 12 when Risa and Allen were married. She remembers that marriage was difficult for children – it can be difficult to reunite two families. But that did not stop Risa and Allen from encouraging family experiences. They took the kids camping and fishing in Oregon during the summer. Kristen remembers her frequent visits to Lake Timothy throughout her childhood.

When the children left home, the couple's traditions focused on their own hobbies. They often went camping and took their caravan to the beach. Risa gardening – she grew everything from berries and vegetables to hydrangeas and roses. Allen played golf and watched the New York Yankees.

Grandparents have also become one of their favorite activities. Kristen said the two of them loved spoiling their four grandchildren with princess crowns, a BB bullets pistol, and a drawer full of Jolly Ranchers and licorice ropes.

After Risa's diagnosis, they focused on making the most of their time together. Risa's relied on her faith. But Allen was more distraught.

"She had such a belief system that everything was going well as planned," said Kristen. "Although he's also a faithful man, it was really hard for him to understand."


Officially, Allen died of unknown causes. The family opted against the autopsy once it was determined that there was no evidence of a criminal act or self-harm. Kristen suspects that the loss combined with possible heat exhaustion – it was 95 degrees that day – was too much for him.

Experts say that psychological stress in times such as grief can have a serious physiological effect. Dr. Alan Teo, an associate professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, said the pattern of husbands' deaths one after another is quite common to have a name: the effect of widowhood. When one spouse dies, the risk of death of the other is increased.

"That says a lot about the incredible idea, on one level, that the death of one person may in one way or another convey and affect the chances of the person being killed. other, "said Teo.

Studies of older couples have shown that the risk of death increases over the next months and years in relation to the relationships in which both partners are alive. Loneliness "poses a host of health risks," such as cognitive decline and depression, Teo said.

Cardiologists have their own diagnosis of physiological stress in a person: cardiomyopathy. Broken heart syndrome.

Dr. Adrienne Kovacs, an associate professor and psychologist at the OHSU Knight Cardiovascular Institute, says that intense stressors – emotional or otherwise – can cause psychic changes in the heart. Most people diagnosed with cardiomyopathy recover. It's a temporary pain.

Kovacs said it was important to recognize unusual symptoms, even at the lowest point in life.

"Sometimes, when traumatic events occur and we really feel physically bad, we tend to dismiss those symptoms because you think it's moving," Kovacs said. "For me, whenever we observe severe physical symptoms, we should consult a doctor."

Allen's emotional stress was evident to Kristen on June 11, the day after Risa's death. Kristen described it as manic. One minute, he was planning camping trips with the grandchildren. The next day he was upset to have lost his wife.

"The last 25 years of his life, they had such a routine. He would call her at lunch. He would call her on the way home and they would talk almost the whole way, then home, "said Kristen, but it was more than routine, she was his person.


For the Splawns family, the losses were difficult. Kristen said that she was focused on helping her children, who miss their grandfather.

"Most days, I think everything is fine," said Kristen, who lives a mile away from her parents' home. His brothers live in Portland, Damascus and Bend.

She paused, thinking more, then recognized that she could be numb while still busy with the work and preparation for her wedding. Her brother Tyler gets married at the end of the month. He is 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 are reviewing the proposals," acknowledged Kristen.

Allen's birthday is on Monday. He would have been 61 years old. His family could go fishing at Lake Timothy in his honor.

The family may never know the true cause of Allen's death. For Kristen, that's good. It is more important to think that the relationship between his father and his mother-in-law is strong and inspiring.

"No wedding is perfect. They really had their moments, "said Kristen. "At the end of the day, they were together and they would never want to be separated."

– McKenna Ross


503-221-5776; @mckenna_ross_

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