March 14, 2006

Study challenges image of depressed widows

WASHINGTON -- The sad image of a grieving widow may not be entirely accurate, according to a study published on Tuesday showing that six months after the death of their partner, nearly half of older people had few symptoms of grief.

And 10 percent cheered up, according to the survey conducted by the University of Michigan and paid for by the National Institute on Aging.

The study, which followed 1,500 couples over the age of 65 for years, looked at the quality of their marriages, their attitudes toward one another, and the effects on one spouse after the other died.

Close to half -- 46 percent -- said 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," Rutgers University 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 healthy way."

In the United States, more than 900,000 adults lose spouses each year. Nearly 75 percent are over the age of 65.

The AARP, a group that represents Americans over the age of 50, says there are more than 13.7 million widowed people in the United States and more than 11 million, or 80 percent, are women.

Writing in a new book, "Spousal Bereavement in Late Life," Carr, psychiatrist Dr. Randolph Nesse, and psychologist Camille Wortman of the State University of New York at Stony Brook said they found that the death of their partner was a relief to about 10 percent of those widowed.

They were depressed before their spouse's death but were much less depressed afterward.

"These are people who felt trapped in a bad marriage or onerous care-giving duties and widowhood offered relief and escape," Carr said. "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."

Another 16 percent of surviving spouses experienced chronic grief, lasting more than 18 months. And 11 percent had high levels of depression six months after their loss but much lower levels by 18 months afterward.