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Life does go on, and for many it's surprisingly sweet

Grief over a spouse's death can give way to a new sense of fulfillment, researchers say.

May 12, 2003|Benedict Carey | Times Staff Writer

Some people follow their spouses right through to the next world, dying mere hours or days after their beloved. It is sometimes suggested that the cause of death was a broken heart.

But while many people view widowhood as the start of a prolonged period of grieving and suffering, socials scientists are finding that, more often than not, just the opposite is true. Men and women who lose a spouse not only survive the loss but usually resume satisfying lives, researchers find.

"You do feel like you're dying yourself, at first," said Helen Kane, 83, of Downey, who lost her husband, Austin, four years ago to cancer. "It kind of comes as a surprise when you don't."

In studies during the last few years, researchers have found that many widows and widowers show no signs of mental anguish or need for counseling. Some recently widowed men and women actually report being more satisfied with their lives than peers whose spouses are alive. And now social scientists are beginning to understand exactly how so many of them discover a renewed sense of self-assurance, after losing their spouses.

"We focused for so long on the negatives of widowhood that we weren't able to acknowledge that there might be something good to say about it," said Deborah Carr, a sociologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who presented the new research on life satisfaction at a recent aging conference.

"It is amazing to me that in some cases married women reported lower satisfaction with their lives than those who'd lost a spouse just six months before," Carr said.

The new findings on widowhood spring from an analysis of in-depth interviews with 1,532 Detroit-area seniors conducted in the 1980s and 1990s, as part of a University of Michigan project called Changing Lives of Older Couples, or CLOC. During the investigation, 319 of the participants were widowed. For the first time, researchers had enough information to compare people's lives before and after a spouse's death, rather than relying on memories. Analyzing the interviews and surveys, they find that personality traits and marital relations can help predict one's experience of widowhood, and provide clues to how people manage its aftermath of loss and uncertainty.

For even when it's long expected, after all, the death of a spouse is an emotional earthquake that psychologists rate as one of life's most distressing events. Kane said she was "in real, physical, aching pain for about a year" after her husband died.

When Jim Shoop's wife died seven years ago, his days became "all blackness." As you grow older, said the 80-year-old Downey resident, "you find that your spouse is much closer to you than ever before, when both of you were working and raising kids. You're always together with this person, and then one day they're gone."

About a quarter of the Michigan widows and widowers reported serious depression after their spouses died. But George Bonanno, a psychologist at Columbia University in New York who studies grief and recovery, recently compared the interview responses more closely and found that nearly half of these people were depressed before their spouses died. "Losing a spouse undoubtedly exacerbates the depression in many cases," Bonanno said, "but it didn't cause it in these people."

Among those who did experience depression just after being widowed, Bonanno found high levels of a specific personality trait: an anxious neediness. In surveys taken before their spouses died, these husbands and wives tended to agree with statements such as, "I imagine the worst if a loved one doesn't arrive on time," and "People sometimes don't realize how easily they can hurt me." While such people are in the minority, they tend to be highly sensitive to being betrayed and have a preoccupation or fear of being abandoned, Bonanno said, adding that these people often require counseling.

By far the most common experience of grieving is what psychologists call the resilient pattern, an acceptance of death that gives way to recovery of energy and interest in beginning a new life. Sometimes this process can drag on for a year or more, complicated by squabbles over an estate, or lack thereof. But most often it happens within the first year after the death.

After her husband of 34 years, Judah, died of a viral infection last September, Alice Graubart, 57, a Chicago social worker, had nightmares almost every night. "I was reliving the circumstances of his death a lot -- the hospital scenes, the way he looked. It was awful," she said. After three months, however, the anguish finally broke, the nightmares faded and a sense of normality returned. "It's a new normal," she said. "He's not here, but I feel like myself again."

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