Losing a partner or companion in life is a devastating experience that many of us will have to face. Some 40% of women and 13% of men over 65 are widowed, according to the latest census figures. Until recently, there was very little solid research on how we continue to live when a loved one dies. But in the last decade, sociologists and psychologists have discovered five surprising truths about grief, thanks to access to large groups of widows and widowers.
We’ve been hearing for years that grief over the loss of a loved one goes through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. If we were to diagram these stages, the emotional trajectory would resemble a huge W, with two low dots representing anger and depression and the final, raised dot representing acceptance. But when University of Akron psychologist Toni Bisconti asked recently widowed women who filled out a questionnaire every day for three months, huge fluctuations from day to day were observed. A widow might feel anxious and depressed one day, and happy and upbeat the next. In other words, we do not overcome the loss in stages, but we oscillate rapidly. Over time, those fluctuations decrease in frequency and intensity until we reach a certain level of emotional adjustment.
2. Pain is not forever
One of the most important discoveries of recent years is that for most of us, grief is an intense but time-limited affliction, not a permanent state. In a study of older men and women who had lost a spouse, George A. Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Teachers College, Columbia University, found that the core symptoms of grief—anxiety, depression, shock, persistent thoughts—had disappeared six months after of death for 50% of those surveyed. Smaller groups took up to 18 months to three years to resume normal operation. Loss is forever, but grief is not.
3. The loss of a spouse is more difficult for men
For years, psychologists have based their research on the assumption that women’s grief at losing a spouse is more intense than men’s, and that it lasts longer. In 2001, psychologists Wolfgang and Margaret Stroebe (a husband and wife team) examined all the research to date and came to the startling conclusion that—considering the higher rate of depression among women in general— men suffer more when they lose their partner. Perhaps many of us have the impression that widows are more desperate, but that is because there are many more widows to observe.
4. Therapy is not necessarily needed
Often, well-meaning friends and family members will urge the widow or widower to attend a support group or see a specialized counselor. Although these measures may make you feel better, they are not essential for recovery. According to a 2008 survey, the pain of loss eases itself. However, therapy and professional counseling can be helpful for people who have been grieving for a long time and who probably suffer from a disorder called “complicated grief.”
5. Humor can heal
In 2008, California State University psychologist Dale Lund surveyed 292 recently widowed men and women over the age of 50 and found that 75% said they found humor and laughter in their daily lives, and at much higher levels than what they expected. Other research shows that the ability to evoke happy memories of the deceased is a factor in recovery. Those who could smile when describing their relationship with their spouse six months after her death were happier and healthier 14 months later than those who could only talk about him or her with sadness, fear, or anger. Difficult as it may seem, try to focus on the good memories and feelings you have from your relationship, as positive emotions can protect the psyche and help you achieve serenity.