Spouses dying close together has medical, social roots

Not even death could end the love story of a North Augusta couple blissfully married 62 years. From this side of the world into the next, Betty and Charles “Bubba” Tabor lived and loved inseparably until the heart could no longer pump another beat.


A high school romance interrupted by the Korean War, a sailor returned for his sprightly nurse, proposing short of dating a year. Without cash for a wedding, the couple borrowed money from their preacher and wed Jan. 5, 1952.

For better and for worse, the Tabors held onto each other.

In sickness, the Tabors let go of each other.

But not for long.

Bubba Tabor, 85, died 10:23 p.m. Jan. 30, following complications from a fall he suffered about two months prior. His bride followed suit just more than 24 hours later, dying in the early morning hours Feb. 1.

“He couldn’t have made it without her and she would not go on without him,” said the Tabor’s grandson, Jeff Wheeler.

The Tabors’ close deaths were more than a mere coincidence. The phenomenon of spouses who die days, weeks and months apart has medical and social roots, experts say.

“It does appear when one spouse dies it greatly increases the risk of a second spouse dying within the next year,” said Dr. Ilan Wittstein, an assistant professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. “That has to be more than coincidence.”

Wittstein, a cardiologist who researched the effects of sudden emotional stress on the heart, said large releases of stress hormones can cause heart muscle damage that most people recover from, but can be deadly. Stress cardiomyopathy, colloquially known as “broken heart syndrome,” weakens the heart, impairing its normal blood pumping rate.

“The heart’s really only temporarily broken,” Wittstein said. “Most people do recover but you can be sick enough to die from this.”

Although Betty Tabor suffered from leukemia and congestive heart failure, her family says the 83-year-old battled death to meet her first great-granddaughter, Caroline Grace Wheeler, who was born last fall. Then, she wanted her beau to go first.

“She managed to hang on because she knew she had to be there for him,” said Wheeler, also of North Augusta. “She held on for him. I have no doubt.”

The two were buried in a joint funeral Monday. They are survived by a daughter, four grandchildren and Caroline Grace.

Georgia Regents University Associate Professor of Sociology Dale White said couples who die close together like the Tabors often have a strong dependency on each other. A spouse may remind the other to take medications and eat well, and then the widowed one neglects those tasks.

“If the bond is very strong and very dependent, when one expires, it’s not uncommon for the elderly couple to die within the calendar year,” White said. “Any loss of something that’s cherished, especially if it’s a person, that is traumatic.”

After losing his wife of 56 years on Dec. 28, Roy Reville told family members he couldn’t go on without his best friend, Peggy, 84. Roy died 30 days after his wife and was buried beside her.

Although he suffered from dementia, Reville, 89, tirelessly cared for his wife, who had Alzheimer’s for 10 years, until the two moved to an assisted living facility. He broke a hip shortly after her death, and didn’t fight his rapidly worsening health.

“He would say, ‘I just don’t want to do this anymore. I want to be with my Peggy,’” said the couple’s niece, Bonnie Hayes. “He fulfilled what he was supposed to do and that was care for her. When that was done, he was ready to be with her.”

The families of both couples know the close proximity of the deaths were not happenstance.

As Betty Tabor’s health deteriorated, she was eventually confined to their house where her husband cared for her day-after-day. Bubba Tabor died in the hospital, but the news didn’t appear to shock his spouse when Wheeler delivered it to her at home.

“She was very calm when he passed,” Wheeler said. “She knew. She said ‘I understand. I know he’s ready.’ ”

The next night, a still-calm Betty Tabor went to bed early. She peacefully passed away in the night.

According to Wittstein, stress cardiomyopathy affects more middle-age to older women than men. Fear, anger and severe anxiety can all trigger broken heart syndrome but heart attacks and ventricular fibrillation, or arrhythmic heart beats, can also result.

Stress cardiomyopathy shows similar symptoms of a heart attack, including shortness of breath and changes to the heart’s electrical activity, but without blockage in the arteries, Wittstein said.

Often, stress cardiomyopathy resulting in death goes undiagnosed, he said.

White, who teaches a class on the sociology of death, grief and caring, said remaining spouses should pay extra attention to themselves when a long marriage ends. They should get rest, watch their diet and get a doctor’s examination.

When Betty Tabor was sick, her husband would sometimes cry at the thought of living without his sweetheart. He never had to.

“They were side-by-side the whole time,” Wheeler said. “It was hard to be sad (at the funeral) because you couldn’t help think they were together the whole time.”

Obituary: Betty and Charles “Bubba” Tabor


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