Is it Common for a Spouse to Die So Soon after the Loss of the Other Spouse?


The journey to write my book, Safe 4 Retirement: The 4 Keys to a Safe Retirement, began when both of my parents died within 6 months of each other.  In the introduction to my book, I write,

In 2009, my Dad died after a battle with prostate cancer.

Six months later, my Mom and our family enjoyed a beautiful Sunday afternoon on the back deck of my house.  The next day, I had to take my Mom to the hospital where she died two days later due to a toxic condition and colon cancer (which she had left untreated and had told none of her family or friends about).

My parents had been married for over 50 years and retired for over a decade.

In my sorrow, a few weeks later, I ventured cross country to spend a weekend with my friend, Sam Kirk in Los Angeles.  His recommended treatment of tequila, cigars, and watching planes fly over his Santa Monica home all night allowed me to open up and discuss my grief with one of my closest friends.

We discussed how people would often say that it was not uncommon for a spouse to die so soon after the loss of the other spouse.  If this was true, I wondered why it was so.”

I was recently speaking on my book to a group and a gentleman asked me if there was proof that there’s actually a high likelihood of a surviving spouse to pass away soon after the death of the spouse.

My research on the topic led me to write my book which examines the ways to prevent this from occurring but it doesn’t clearly and definitively indicate if the following hypothesis is true: “When one elderly spouse dies, the remaining spouse is more likely to die soon after this death.”

As a researcher, during the writing of the book I had come to my conclusions based on the discussions with many retirees but I felt that I needed to be able to more accurately answer this question should it continue to come up during my presentations and discussions on the book.

What I found is that this is actually referred to as the “widowhood effect” and although there are many anecdotal and qualitative studies that can lead one to conclusions, there are actual quantitative data that proves that the “widowhood effect” is real, particularly for men.

Among elderly couples, according to Harvard University sociologists, men are 22 percent more likely to die shortly after the death of a spouse, compared with 17 percent for women.

And a National Institute on Aging study found that race plays a part in the widowhood effect, with white partners aged 67 or older more likely than elderly African Americans to succumb early in bereavement.” – The Widowhood Effect, Anita Creamer

In the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying (yes, everything exists online), the definition of widower includes this:

Much of the research suggests that there is a greater prevalence of mortality and morbidity among the spousal bereaved compared to those who are currently married. Many of these same studies further report that the risk of becoming physically ill or dying soon after the loss of a spouse is greatest for widowers. The fact that men tend to be older when their spouses die could explain some of these findings. Although mortality is less common among younger widowers, the difference between their mortality rates and those of their married counterparts is greater than what is observed among older age groups, especially within the first six months of bereavement.”

Although the studies seem to bear out the reality of the “widowhood effect”, the reality is that it doesn’t mean a death sentence for the  elderly widowed.  Rather, there are many studies and examples of how seniors have been able to address their situation and rather than losing hope (and thus their reason to live), they are doing what their deceased spouse would want them to do – continue to live and live fully.

One of the 4 Keys to a Safe Retirement is the need to have a positive attitude and address one’s mental attitude in retirement.  The grief of losing a spouse in retirement can be overwhelming to people, especially those who are unable to lean on others for support or who don’t have a structure in their retirement.

In my book, I believe that finding happiness in retirement requires planning in the following areas: financial, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.  It also requires that retirees be involved with others and with activities that allow them to continue to grow.  These support structures are vital to helping retirees weather the storms of loss that come with retirement.

The importance of a support structure, whether family or friends is crucial to the recently widowed.  It’s also important that they are afforded the ability to work through their grief (to find resources on this, click here).  For the survivors, it’s important to recognize that you can have a role here, even if it’s just in being able to listen and comfort the grieving.

In researching this issue, I found good news on the topic of the “widowhood effect”.

An article by Deborah Carr of Rutgers University found that most older people are “surprisingly resilient after the death of a loved one”:

One analysis based on the Changing Lives of Older Couples (CLOC), a multiwave study of bereavement among spouses age 65 and older, found that nearly half (46 per- cent) of older widows and widowers were “resilient,” showing no or few depressive symptoms at both 6 and 18 months after their loss. Rather than showing signs of denial, emotional inhibition, or delayed grief, these relatively symptom-free older adults believed that death was a part of life, and they took great comfort in memories of their deceased spouses. One in ten showed what the authors called the “common grief” pattern, experiencing strong depressive symptoms six months after their loss, but improving considerably over the following year. Another 10 percent (whom the authors dubbed “depressed-improved”) had significant depressive symptoms prior to the loss, but then improved considerably after it occurred. Just 16 percent reported “chronic grief,” or strong depressive symptoms for more than 18 months following the loss. Eight percent experi-enced “chronic depression,” which encompasses high, constant levels of depressive symptoms both before and after the loss.

The article goes on to make what seems to be obvious findings:

“Of the 900,000 Americans who lose a mate each year, nearly three-quarters are 65 or older. Patterns of spousal loss mirror mortality patterns overall. The death rate, or the number of people who die in a given year per 100,000 in the population, increases sharply beyond age 65. Losing a spouse is simply inevitable for most older married couples. As sociologist Helena Lopata has observed, the only way to avoid such a loss is to avoid marriage.”

Yet, the finding that seems most interesting to me from this article is the following:

“Yet these patterns also suggest that older bereaved spouses have an important coping resource that is seldom available to younger widows and widowers: friends, peers, and siblings who also are adjusting to such a loss. Older adults often “rehearse” for losing a spouse by watching their peers go through the same experience; they can turn to one another for wisdom, practical support, and camaraderie.”

As I write in my book, the realities of retirement will cause us to lose friends and family.  It’s not only how we deal with these situations that provide us with a safe retirement, but it’s also our ability to help and support others in these situations.  For retirees, the importance of having a support structure is critical.  It’s also important to be involved as part of this support structure for others.

The 4th Key to a Safe Retirement, as outlined in my book is to “stay involved”.  This involvement aspect allows retirees to build, nurture and maintain a support structure that will not only help them but will allow them to help others.  The ability to be involved in such things as church groups, gym activities, bridge, travel with others, whatever, exist all around the elderly and retired.  The need to be part of these things will not only help the individual retiree, but it will help others.

Perhaps the realities that I saw in my own life and what I learned through the writing of my book may help others to survive the realities that will impact them in their retirement.  I’m sure that my parents would want it that way.

Resources on the topic:

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