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"She's lost the will to live?! What is your degree in, poetry?!"
Dr. Ball, MD, Robot Chicken

Citizen One: Indeed and it was at that very moment that Rachel Jackson began to die of grief.

Citizen Two: Grief?

Citizen One: It’s the nineteenth century. That’s the kind of shit that happened then.

Sometimes, life sucks. People go bankrupt. Plans go awry. People we love die. Terrible things happen to people. And sometimes the poor, unfortunate people to whom terrible things happen just... stop. Death by Despair is what happens when someone loses the will to live, and as a result, just dies. There's rarely a readily apparent medical cause for it. Just a broken heart, or a broken soul for those cases not caused by the loss of a loved one.

A Sub-Trope of Despair Event Horizon, since this is the result of despair that severe.

If a character's anguish causes them to take affirmative action to end their own lives rather than just dying from despair then Driven to Suicide (for deliberate attempts to end ones life) or Death Seeker (for when simple self-preservation instincts are ignored) applies instead.

As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.

Examples of Death by Despair include:


Anime and Manga

  • Shou Tucker's first chimera in Fullmetal Alchemist dies this way by ceasing to eat and eventually dying of starvation. This makes more sense when it's revealed that this chimera was his wife.
    • Also, it's implied that this is what happened to Ed and Al's mother. Yes, it's true, she got sick, but (in both the first anime and in the manga/Brotherhood) it was stated that she was just never the same after Hoenheim left, and that the lack of self-care between being a single mother and her broken heart weakened her enough to die from an illness she probably should have recovered from.
    • It could also be said that this is what almost happened to Riza. When Lust made the Badass Boast that she had killed Roy Mustang, Riza went on a brief Roaring Rampage of Revenge until she ran out of bullets...then slumped to the ground, weeping and waiting to be killed. She only recovered the will to live when she realized that Roy had survived.
  • In Dragonball Z the stress of his people being slaughtered by Frieza and co. causes this to happen to the Grand Elder of Planet Namek. To be fair, he was extremely old and had been dying slowly for quite a while, so it amounted to dying a matter of minutes before he would have died 'naturally'. It nonetheless became a critical plot point because Planet Namek's Dragon Balls disappear when he dies.
  • Tomoya Okazaki of Clannad ~After Story~. When his daughter, his new reason to live after Nagisa's death, dies in his arms, he collapses in the snow, presumably dead from a broken heart. But he got better. Really.
  • Parodied in Mahou Sensei Negima with Emily Sevensheep's mother. After she hears about her idol Nagi's death, we see her in her apparent death bed, telling her daughter that, just once, she wanted to see Nagi in person... then we cut to the doctor sweatdropping and saying that she only has a cold.
  • Subverted/Averted as all hell in Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei, much to the (non) consternation of Itoshiki, a man so steeped in despair that he will Wangst himself to suicide over the most outlandish theories and observations.
  • The Anti-Spiral tried to make humanity suffer this in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. It didn't work.
  • Kaede Fuyou from Shuffle was close to this as a young girl, after her mother's death in an accident. Rin had to lie to her by putting the blame on him so she'd recover the will to live.
  • Almost happens to Liechtenstein in Axis Powers Hetalia, after World War I destroys her lands and kills a good part of her people. Fortunately, Switzerland finds her when she's about to give in and let herself die, and takes her in into his home (symbolizing the union between both countries, which still survives to this day).
  • In C the Money And Soul of Possibility, Entres who get bankrupt lose their future and would usually commit suicide afterwards.
  • Barely averted in Bellemere's backstory in One Piece. She had fought in a terrible battle that destroyed a coastal city and was just waiting for her almost sure demise... then she saw little Nojiko carrying baby Nami in her arms and regained the will to live, taking the little girls in.
  • Mai's friend Konami from Popotan. Due to the girls being time travelers Konami waited years for her best friend to come back. After so many years, she apparently gave up hope, and passed away. Mai doesn't take this news very well.
  • While it hasn't actually happened so far, the succubi of Rosario to Vampire can literally die of heartbreak.
  • Literally occurs in Puella Magi Madoka Magica in the new world in the endings, a Magical Girl's magic is somewhat based on her level of hope. So if they run out of magic (or hope) they die. This is a step up from the original timeline, where they turn into The Heartless.
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena was close to this after her parents died but thankfully her prince (or Touga) saves her.
  • In S-Cry-ed, Ayase Terada goes out this way when she learns that her brother is dead (through a wireless heart monitor on her wrist). It might be justified, since she went through a process to refine her power which is said to drastically shorten lifespan in some cases, but aside from some scarring looks perfectly healthy. Kazuma, who she was fighting, didn't even get a chance to land a hit.


Comic Books

  • Fables: According to Bigby, his mother died of a broken heart after his father abandoned the family.


Film

  • Padme in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith suffered this according to the medbot attending her. Watching her husband become Darth Vader was apparently too much and even giving birth to twin future heroes of the galaxy wasn't enough to salvage her will to live. Apparently getting force choked hard enough to break bones wouldn't have killed her if she hadn't given up, though saying "there is still good in him" kinda contradicts that.
  • Possibly Illanka in House of Frankenstein after she shoots Lawrence Talbot with a silver bullet after he attacks her as the Wolf Man. She shows no signs of injury afterward, and since she can move, her neck was clearly not broken, but she dies on top of Larry's corpse.
  • Possibly George in A Single Man. Eight months after the death of Jim, his lover of sixteen years, George has been so ground down by grief (which he can't outwardly show, because it's the 1960s) that he decides to commit suicide... which turns out to be an unnecessary decision, since he dies of a heart attack instead, having been shown throughout the film to be nursing a chronic heart condition. Diabolus Ex Machina, or stress-induced cardiomyopathy? See Real Life examples below.
  • Contact with the "ghosts" of J-Horror film Kairo (Pulse) results in this. The ghosts don't even do anything, they're just there, but coming face to face with one results in the victim realizing that, even in death, everyone is completely and utterly alone. The soul-crushing despair from this revelation causes the victim to simply shrink away, their will to live fading, until they literally become nothing but an eerie stain of soot on the wall.


Literature

  • Hunger Games: Katniss attempts this during her confinement after Prim's death and her subsequent assassination of Coin. It doesn't work.
  • Milly in The Wings Of The Dove is ill throughout the book, but eventually dies due to a broken heart.
  • In Anne Mcaffrey's Dragonflight, we learn that, when a rider dies, his/her dragon goes Between (a bitter cold, blackness through which dragons teleport), never to return.
    • Also, dragon riders whose dragons die can become this.
  • In the Incarnations of Immortality novel With A Tangled Skein, we see this is apparently the reason people die after Atropos cuts their life's thread.
  • In the novel The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham, after Walter dies of cholera, Kitty says that he really died of a broken heart.
  • In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Physiologist's Wife, the eponymous physiologist dies of this in the end, much to the disbelief of those examining the body.
  • After the dog Old Dan dies of injuries in Where the Red Fern Grows, his companion Little Ann gradually wastes away (her owner literally has to pry her jaws open to force her to eat something) and joins him in death.
  • In World War Z some people are so traumatized by the horrors and hopelessness sometimes just go to sleep...and never wake up.
  • The eponymous Phantom dies of a broken heart in The Phantom of the Opera.
  • Zhuge Liang in Romance of the Three Kingdoms has the ability to cause this. Several other people die of this naturally as well.
  • Not a few cases in JRR Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium (The Lord of the Rings etc), both Elven and Human. Specifically notable as a way of death for the immortal Elves. Elven spirits are noted to have a much greater influence over their physical bodies, so if they have the appropriate willpower and determination they can live and pull through almost anything; however it also works the other way round - if they lose their hope and will to live their bodies just give out. In The Silmarillion there almost seems to be a tradition for the men to be killed and their wives dying of despair shortly afterwards; this happening to Rian, Gloredhel, Melian and Luthien (although Luthien's case is a little unique)
  • In More Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark, the story Cold As Clay involved this, when a farmhand "wastes away" after his employer moves his daughter in order to keep the two apart. The daughter is never told about this, however, which is why she isn't surprised when the farmhand arrives at her door to take her home...some time after his death.
  • Jean Valjean dies like this in Les Misérables, after he is separated from his adopted daughter.
  • Iseult of Tristan and Iseult fame.
  • In The Wheel of Time people who lose the ability to channel do this as well as Warders with dead Aes Sedai who aren't killed trying to avenge them.
    • Warders who outlive their bonded Aes Sedai and can't avenge their deaths (if the Aes Sedai wasn't killed by someone, or died in an accident, or someone else gets there first, etc.) more become Death Seekers By Despair -- they'll continuously throw themselves at Shadowspawn and dangerous problems until they finally get killed.
  • Catherine Earnshaw-Linton of Wuthering Heights. Nellie Dean personally believes Heathcliff died of this too, and was not Driven to Suicide -- she sees his refusal to eat or sleep for days as a "result" of his illness rather than a cause.
  • In American Gods, a funeral director observes that an elderly man whose wife just dies will most likely be dead himself in about eight months. In his experience, elderly women who lose their husbands are usually able to live on, but elderly men can't handle it and will stop taking care of themselves and lose the will to live.
  • After both of Colonel Filitov's sons died young, one while fighting counterrevolutionaries and one due to his tank suffering a critical defect, his wife faded away. The loss of his entire family is what inspired him to start working for the CIA, becoming The Cardinal of the Kremlin.
  • Don Quixote:
    • Parodied by the "resurrection" of Altisidora, a girl who claims to love Don Quixote and invokes this trope (it’s really a prank). Don Quixote and Sancho didn’t believe it for a minute (this was at XVI century). When Don Quixote rejects her again:

 Hearing this, Altisidora, with a show of anger and agitation, exclaimed, "God's life! Don Stockfish, soul of a mortar, stone of a date, more obstinate and obdurate than a clown asked a favour when he has his mind made up, if I fall upon you I'll tear your eyes out! Do you fancy, Don Vanquished, Don Cudgelled, that I died for your sake? All that you have seen to-night has been make-believe; I'm not the woman to let the black of my nail suffer for such a camel, much less die!"

"That I can well believe," said Sancho; "for all that about lovers pining to death is absurd; they may talk of it, but as for doing it-Judas may believe that!"

    • Played straight at the end of the novel by Don Quixote, whom could not survive his Fan Disillusionment. (This is a petty reason to die, it's An Aesop).
  • Happens to the Aboriginal boy in Walkabout. He believes the girl's fear of him is because she's seen the spirit of Death on him (in fact, she's just afraid because she's been taught Aboriginals are savages and never actually met one before). Because he thinks death is coming for him, he then more or less wills himself to die.
    • More precisely, he catches the flu from the girl's brother, but has neither the inherited resistance nor the will to fight it. (The movie is more explicitly Death by Despair: he hangs himself after the failure of his courtship dance.)
  • In Gene Stratton Porter's Freckles, Freckles's conviction that he is unworthy of Angel is killing him after his injuries.


Live Action TV


Tabletop Games

  • Elves in Dungeons and Dragons who have formed an empathic bond with another person can fall to the depths of despair when that person dies. The shock and grief of the bond breaking can sometimes kill the elf in question, and vice-versa. Likewise, if confined away from nature itself and other elves for a long time, elves can simply literally lose all hope and force their own death.
  • In Role Master, critical hits on the "depression damage" table can cause the target to assume a fetal position on the floor and literally lose the will to live, dying by despair.


Theater

  • Romeo and Juliet contains two examples, one played straight and one subverted. Lady Montague is said to have died of despair after she learned about Romeo's banishment. Also, Juliet is believed to have died of grief over the death of her cousin Tybalt. Subverted because Juliet isn't dead, and wasn't grieving that much over Tybalt anyway... though despair does drive her to kill herself when Romeo kicks it.
  • Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra after he realizes betraying Antony was too much for him. Manages a long monologue before he dies (and there's also an opera of the play, where he sings an aria in good ol' operatic tradition).
  • Isolde shows how it's done... after a long monologue.
  • Elsa in Lohengrin.
  • Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, most likely. She dies without a physical reason. Tannhäuser himself does this too when he sees Elisabeth dead.
  • Rachel Jackson in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson after her bigamy is made public by Congress. The play even calls out how ridiculous such a death sounds.


Video Games

  • At the very end of Apollo Justice: AceAttorney, your defendant is comatose in hospital while you enstablish the verdict. Get a Not Guilty verdict, and she lives. Get a Guilty Verdict, and she dies before she can be executed.
  • Minnie 'Stronie' Goodsoup from The Curse of Monkey Island died of a broken heart after her fiancee (revealed to be LeChuck) left her at the altar.
  • Oswald from Odin Sphere lets himself be carted off to the underworld by a Halja (a grim reaper-type servant of the Queen of the Dead) after his mistaken conclusion that Gwendolyn doesn't feel anything for him and that he is imprisoning her in their marriage causes him to lose the will to live. Fortunately he's saved when Gwendolyn, who really does love him, invades the Underworld and rescues him.
  • In The Sims, Sim children who are left alive, after their parents die, eventually die due to despair, even if all of their other needs are addressed.
    • This must refer to one of the later versions - it's possible, though difficult, for Sims 1 children to survive on their own. It also tends to involve a lot of cheat codes.
  • In Final Fantasy X it is heavily implied that Tidus' mother died this way after Jecht vanished, and that this is one of many reasons that Tidus hates his father so much.
  • In Team Fortress 2, you can inflict this on your enemies: The Jarate weapon causes anyone hit by it to "lose the will to live" and take more damage from you and your allies' weapons. Played entirely for laughs- this is TF2.
  • The Apathy Syndrome victims in Persona 3 suffer from this after Shadows from humanity's Collective Unconscious feed on their sense of "self." All they do is shamble around and vegetate, doing nothing but wait to die, while letting out the occasional moan if you try to talk to them. In the Bad Ending of the game, Nyx inflicts this upon everyone and everything on Earth, including the main characters.
  • The Lord of the Rings Online, possibly uniquely among fantasy MMORPGs, replaces the admittedly conceptually illogical "hit points" most games use with "morale points." The general idea seems to be that the only way to die is literally from despair, though this despair is most commonly caused by the pain of being surrounded by enemies and stabbed repeatedly. Given the legendarium of Tolkein, mentioned in the Literature section of this very page, it's actually harder to argue against this being canonical than you'd think.


Web Original

  • Ink City: while not explictedly played out, Word of Mundane gave this as the reason for Misery's departure: the horrifying fashion in which her best friend departed from the City and the Awful Truths he unintentionally shared with her beforehand caused her so much grief that she curled up and wasted away.
  • After realizing the painful truth that he's a waste of space whose life has gone nowhere, The Nostalgia Critic slumps over his chair to eventually die alone. Luckily, he then gets some confidence back with an awesome song.


Web Comics


Western Animation

 Abe Simpson: They may say that she died from a ruptured aorta, but I know she really died of a broken heart.

    • In "Curse of the Flying Hellfish", this is implied to be the cause of Asa Phelps' death:

 Reverend Lovejoy: He worked at the United Strut and Bracing Works as a molder's boy, until he was replaced by a Molder-Matic and died.

  • This nearly became the case for Kyle in South Park. Cartman receives $1,000,000 from his grandma upon her death and buys a flailing amusement park with it, and keeps it all for himself, having the time of his life and gaining national fame. This causes Kyle to have a hemorrhoid in his ass that is slowly killing him because he loses faith in God and the will to live. But at the end of the episode, when a series of hardships causes Cartman to lose his park and be utterly miserable, Kyle's hemorrhoid vanishes and he instantly becomes better, realizing that there is a God.
  • The page quote comes from one of the Robot Chicken Star Wars specials, mocking Padme's death in the Revenge of the Sith.


Real Life

  • Stress-induced cardiomyopathy AKA "Broken Heart Syndrome" can cause your heart to fail.
  • Truth in Television to a degree: Depression, stress and lack of "will to live" do appear to weaken the immune system. Mortality rates for the sick and elderly are lower just before birthdays, anniversaries and other events that they want to see - they manage to "hang on" by increased will to live - but worsen afterwards. Articles were published noting the sudden rise in the death rate of 100 years or older people directly after the year 2000 hit, because they wanted to see three centuries.
  • Theodore Roosevelt was quite sickly and in very poor health, but overcame it with with pure Badass and force of will. When his son Quentin died in World War I, that will failed, and years of poor health hit him like a sack of bricks. He died less than a year later.
  • Victor Frankl, in his book Man's Search For Meaning, described how some people he'd known in Nazi concentration camps gave up after awhile and stopped doing anything. Within a week or two, they'd just die.
  • Toshiro Mifune reportedly got a heart-attack or stroke from Karōshi, also known as "Death by Over Work," but did not die. He did, however, spend his life after that in the care of his estranged wife, fellow actress Sachiko Yoshimine, until she died from pancreatic cancer; he would die two years later from multiple organ failure. Before Sachiko had been diagnosed, it was reported his health was returning, but after her death, his health quickly and rapidly declined. Some believe that he did eventually die because Sachiko was no longer with him, having simply lost the will to live.
  • Babies can possibly die if not held enough... Seriously. Since they're babies it's hard to get concrete evidence as to why this happens, but many people think that it's because they don't feel loved. The experiments that proved this (made, of course, long before modern ethics standards) dubbed it "failure to thrive".
    • (...but don't panic if your pediatrician says your kid has failure to thrive. That is now a catch-all term, meaning any kid significantly underweight who doesn't have some other disease to explain it.)
  • Some believe that this is what ultimately killed Johnny Cash; His death came mere months after his beloved wife June Carter Cash died.
  • Chang and Eng Bunker, otherwise known as the original Siamese Twins, lived a fairly prosperous life, swapping between running a plantation and exhibitioning themselves (they were the first Siamese Twins, after all). One day, Chang died while he and his brother were sleeping; when Eng awoke, he was consumed with grief, wrapped himself around his brother, refused to let surgeons separate the two of them, and died three hours later. He's reported to have said "He's my brother. We've been together from before we were born. I simply won't live without him."
  • Theo, an army sniffer dog, died hours after his handler was killed in a firefight, despite being a healthy young dog who wasn't injured himself.
  • Apes can die of loneliness. Keeping one in a cage all by itself is not recommended.
    • Apparently it can happen to elephants too.
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