Saturday, January 14, 2006


As a term, bereavement normally applies only on the occasion of loss of a very close family member, most commonly a spouse, through death. The psychological consequences of bereavement-- grief-- can, however, accompany a number of other life events, such as the death of a child, sibling, close friend, business partner, or even divorce, abandonment, loss of a pet, destruction of a residence by fire, and sometimes financial loss. While bereavement involving loss of a spouse may occur at any adult stage of life, it is most likely to take place in advanced maturity.
According to the Handbook of the Psychology of Aging, for example, after age 65, 51 percent of women and 13.6 percent of men have experienced widowhood at least once. When men and women are taken together the General Social Survey shows that the highest rate of death of family members does not necessarily occur in the most advanced years of life, that is, beyond age 85. This source shows that the peak years for experiencing the death of a relative in the past 5 years (in many cases a spouse) are from age 55-84. The percentages of people reporting such a loss range from 54 percent at age 55- 64, down to 52 percent at 75-84. By comparison only about 50 percent of those over 85 report a loss within the past five years.
Differences occur between the sexes. The highest years for loss for women come between ages 55 and 64, when more than 55 percent report the death of a relative in the past five years-most commonly their husband. For men the peak years occur after age 85, when 65 percent report a loss, many of which involve their wives. These differences between the sexes undoubtedly exist because the average man marries a woman who is younger than himself, and he dies at a younger age than his wife. Men who do live beyond 85 may quite likely lose their spouse because the average life expectancy of women is about 78 years.
The death of a child preceding the death of a parent becomes increasingly common as the years pass. Exact statistics on the frequency of this type of loss are not available, but one can surmise that child deaths become quite frequent after 85 if we observe, first, that the average age of beginning parenthood comes in the early 20s and then note that the frequency of death is about 1,300 per 100,000 at age 55-64, or over a quarter of a million deaths, when more than 3 1/4 million persons over age 85 remain alive. Some of these death inevitably occur to people whose parents are over 85; in fact, people over 85 may well have lost all their relatives and be the only surviving members of their families.
No one should underestimate the severe psychological impact of bereavement. A number of studies have documented increased depression, illness, and death among widows and widowers. If there can be good news in the face of so grave a personal loss as the death of a spouse, it is that long-term studies of widows and widowers show lower rates of clinical depression (depression that is measurably severe) than might be expected- 33 percent in a month following death and 13 percent after a year. Authors La Rue Asenath, Connie Dessonville and Lissy Jarvik comment in the Handbook of the Psychology of Aging that, "Relatively few older people appear to develop protracted and disabling depressive illness following age-appropriate loss of loved ones."
Asenath, L. R.; Dessonville, C.; and Jarvik, L. F. "Aging and Mental Disorders," in Birren, J. E., and Schaie, K. W., eds., Handbook of the Psychology of Aging, 2nd. ed. New York: VanNostrand Reinhold Company, 1985.
Kastenbaum, R. "Dying and Death: A Life-Span Approach," in Birren, J. E., and Schaie, K. W., eds., Handbook of the Psychology of Aging, 2nd. ed. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1985.
Russell, C. M., and Megaard, I. The General Social Survey, 1972-1986: The State of the American People. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1988.


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