Grief travels different paths

A rare study of elderly individuals before and after the death of their spouses finds that a surprisingly large number stayed on an even emotional keel. The rest displayed more troubled responses.

Using interviews and questionnaires, a team led by George A. Bonanno of Columbia University and Camille B. Wortman of the State University of New York at Stony Brook studied 205 men and women around 3 years before their spouses’ deaths and 6 months and 18 months after. Participants averaged 69 years old at the study’s start.

Nearly half of the surviving spouses exhibited the same emotional stability during the bereavement period as they had beforehand, qualifying them as “resilient” to grief, Bonanno and Wortman reported at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, held in August in Chicago.

Other bereavement patterns proved less inspiring. One group reported emotional stability while married, followed by symptoms of depression and grief 6 months after their spouse’s death. In some cases, these emotions later eased, but in others they remained intense. Another group reported being depressed while married and at both follow-ups.

A final group reported feeling depressed while married but then said they felt much better at 6 and 18 months after the spouse’s death. These individuals also displayed self-absorption and poor coping skills that had contributed to volatile marriages, the researchers report.

A few participants suffered from delayed grief that didn’t appear until 18 months after a spouse’s death (SN: 3/2/02, p. 131: Good Grief: Bereaved adjust well without airing emotion).

The most severe reactions occurred among people who had been emotionally dependent on their mates, got little support from family and friends, and whose spouse had been healthy before dying.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.