The familiar image of a sad, grieving widow might not be perfectly accurate, according to a new study showing that six months after the death of their partner, nearly half of older people had few symptoms of grief.
The study, conducted by the University of Michigan and sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, showed that ten percent even cheered up after their loss.
The study followed 1,500 couples over the age of 65 for several years, observed their marriage quality, their attitudes toward one another, and the effects on one spouse after the other died.
Nearly half (46%) of the participants reported they had enjoyed their marriages but were able to cope with the loss of a spouse without much grieving.
“Until recently, mental health experts assumed that persons with minimal symptoms of grief were either in denial, emotionally distant or lacked a close attachment to their spouse,” says sociologist Deborah Carr, who began analyzing the data while she was at the University of Michigan.
“But 46 percent of the widows and widowers in this study reported that they had satisfying marriages. They believed that life is fair and they accepted that death is a part of life,” Carr said in a statement.
“After their partner’s death, many surviving spouses said they took great comfort in their memories,” she added.
“Taken together, these findings provide strong evidence that men and women who show this resilient pattern of grief are not emotionally distant or in denial, but are in fact well-adjusted individuals responding to loss in a health way.”
In the United States, over 900,000 adults lose spouses every year, and nearly 75% are over the age of 65. As, well, according to the AARP (a group that represents Americans over the age of 50) there are over 13.7 million widowed persons in America and more than 11 million (80%) are women.
Dr. Randolph Nesse, Dr. Carr, and psychologist Camille Wortman of the State University of New York at Stony Brook said they found the death of their partner was actually a relief for around 10 percent of those widowed. They were depressed before their spouse’s death but much less so afterward.
“These are people who felt trapped in a bad marriage or onerous care-giving duties and widowhood offered relief and escape,” Carr stated. “The old paradigm would have seen this absence of grief as emotional inhibition or a form of denial, but in our view, these are people for whom bereavement serves as the end of a chronic source of stress.”
An additional 16 percent of surviving spouses experienced chronic grief, which lasted longer than 18 months. Eleven percent showed elevated levels of depression six months after their spouse passed away, but much lower levels after 18 months.