In a community our size, it is not surprising I occasionally meet a patient or a family member in Shaw’s or Skillin’s. So It was not unusual that I encountered Amy that day in Shaw’s five years after her husband had died of leukemia. I had seen her several times from afar and she would sheepishly wave, but that day she came right up to me and exclaimed, “I can’t believe he’s gone. I’ve never gotten over it.” And then she cried.
How long does it take to recover after the death of a spouse? Psychologists have traditionally concluded that after a brief period of sometimes intense bereavement, the vast majority of spouses adjust well, returning to their previous work, daily routines, and prior state of contentment within a few months to a year. But that assessment is now being seriously challenged.
Recent research has found that most survivors have considerable difficulty with their quality of life after the death of a spouse, feeling trapped in a restricted, joyless existence. This research notes significant declines in both physical and emotional health and wellbeing. Over 400 individuals who
had lost a spouse were subjects in a recent study. These individuals were followed yearly for thirteen years with face-to-face and telephone interviews and self-completed questionnaires. To positivev questions about having a full life, feeling calm and peaceful, and having a lot of energy, only 26%vclaimed they had bounced back to a life similar to when their spouses were alive. To negative questions such as like being nervous, feeling so depressed nothing could help, or being worn out, 80% continued to feel that way. To questions of physical activities, 63% had no recovery to their baseline level. Overall only 10% of individuals had recovered to all levels of physical and emotional health present before their spouses had died. This recent scientific work shows profound differences from what was generally believed about how resilient people are after the loss of a spouse.
Amy told me she thought she had done the right things to assuage her grief. In her synagogue she had a weeklong period of mourning with relative and friends expressing condolences and relatingvmemories of her husband, and a yearlong period of daily prayers. After that she thought she could govit alone. She could not. “It still hurts—just asvbad. When will it end?” Amy lamented that day in the supermarket.
The Bible relates stories of people having prolonged periods of grief after the death of a spouse. In one notable example occurring in the land of Canaan 3000 thousand years ago, Naomi left the town of Bethlehem with her sons because of famine in the land. In the land of her new home her husband died as well as her sons. Ten years later she was still grieving. As Naomi was preparing with two daughters-in-laws to return to Bethlehem that was recovering from the famine and facing a better future, still lamented her physical and emotional condition: “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara [bitter], because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1: 20-21).
New research has concluded there are three factors that help people recover from their loss: having someone to confide in or lean on for support; social connectedness such as religious vorganizations; and maintaining daily activities. But how long do people need support? From the recent research, a year is too short. Most people will need help for longer periods of time than one year or any other arbitrary time period. The death of a spouse is a crushing blow to most people.
As Amy walked away from me in Shaw’s that day, I realized the wisdom in the Bible of three millenia ago set there as an example for us as well as the recent experience of Amy. We should be alert to how much and how deep is the loss after the death of a spouse, and be willing to help family and friends for an extended period of time. The impact of the loss of a spouse can have long-lasting effects on physical and emotional health. Few can “get on with it.”