One of the most distressing of life events is experiencing the death of a spouse. The health detriments associated with widowhood are well-documented. Surviving spouses commonly experience declines in both psychological well-being and physical health. Very little research, however, has shown whether health at the time of widowhood or health-related changes that accompany widowhood affect a widowed person’s bereavement experience. Researchers from the University of Utah recently explored the potential relationship between physical health and bereavement experience among recently bereaved spouses.
This team of researchers examined data from the “Living After Loss” (LAL) longitudinal study of older bereaved spouses/partners to explore the relationship between physical health and psychological well-being among recently bereaved spouses. The LAL sample included 328 persons age 50 or better whose spouse or partner had died within two to six months. Those experiencing the traumatic or violent death of a spouse were excluded. Participants were surveyed four times over the course of 18 months about their physical health and psychological well-being.
Results indicate that the psychological trajectory of bereavement may be fairly universal. Regardless of health status at baseline, widowed persons followed a similar decelerating trajectory of grief and depression over time. Yet, those with poor health consistently reported the highest levels of grief and depressive symptoms throughout the first 18 months of widowhood. Moreover, those with below-average health during the first months of widowhood reported higher rates of complicated grief and major depression at 18 months post-loss.
These findings suggest that physical health may be an important risk factor in identifying widowed persons most likely to experience prolonged grief or major depression. The authors suggest that current bereavement support should include an assessment of physical health at the time of widowhood as a way to identify persons at most risk. Furthermore, they advocate for broader interventions aimed at addressing not only the psychological symptoms associated with widowhood, but the physical changes as well. In addition to focusing on clients’ psychological health, health care providers may consider providing clients with information about self-care and health promotion. Indeed, interventions focused on promoting self-care may help reduce costs associated with prolonged clinical care.
Utz, RL, Caserta M, & Lund D. (2012) Grief, depressive symptoms, and physical health among recently bereaved spouses. The Gerontologist, 52, 460-471.