Sunday, January 15, 2006

death, spouse's

Some years ago psychologists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe conducted a survey that demonstrated that the death of a spouse ranks as the most severe of all problems that people experience. Death of a spouse was given the top value of 100 stress points, while divorce, the next most serious problem, was far down the scale with a score of 73. Both ranked ahead of separation, a jail term, death of a close family member other than a spouse, personal injury, loss of a job, and a multitude of other problems.
The problems of adjustment to widowhood occur to women more frequently than they do to men-by age 65 nearly 30% of all women have already become widows, while widowhood is a rarity for men; and, by age 75 , 67 percent of women are widowed compared to only 23.6 percent of men. The problems of widowhood may include learning to live alone; having a more limited social life; living on a reduced income; and performing responsibilities that the former spouse had assumed.
Women typically have to take on new financial responsibilities, such as paying mortgage and tax bills, reviewing cancelled checks and bill payments to maintain bank accounts, keeping track of investments, and undertaking routine automobile maintenance and care of lawns and landscapes. Widowers may have to learn how to become cooks, wash and fold the laundry, shop, and even do some sewing. Spouses who have shared in these tasks before the death of their marriage partner adjust most successfully, as do those who previously discussed funeral arrangements, and shared information on the location of valuable papers, bank accounts, and safe deposit boxes.
With respect to advice to a surviving spouse, it is preferable to postpone any major decisions for a year after the death of a mate because the grieving process, which often lasts a year or more, may cloud a survivor's judgment. Adult children usually can be called on for help in coping with adjustment tasks, but it is important to remember that a child may also experience severe grief over the loss of a parent and may need support following a parental death.
Appropriate mourning, even when intense, rarely creates mental or physical problems, but suppressed grief may break out into other forms of behavior-high irritability, restlessness, and depression. Children or other family members should allow a surviving spouse to recall and reminisce about the deceased even to the point of tears. Family members should help the widowed spouse to reach decisions about practical day-to-day affairs because the process of developing judgments fosters healthy and necessary independence. Family can also assist the survivor in resuming social activity when grief or depression might otherwise lead to social isolation.
Finally, though it is rarely perceived by others, one of the most devastating losses caused by the death of a spouse is the termination of physical intimacy-hugging, kissing, tender embraces, all exchanged with affection. While sexual activity may be nonexistent for the survivor, children and family can help to fill the void in physical contact by themselves embracing, hugging, and kissing the widow or widower. A touch, a quick pat on the shoulder, an affectionate squeeze, or a peck on the cheek all can communicate love and help to fill the need for affection.
Gillies, J. A Guide to Caring for Coping with Aging Parents. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1981.
Holmes, T. H., and Rahe, R. Journal of Psychosomatic
Research 11 (1967).
Loewinsohn, R. J. Survival Handbook for Widows. Glennview, Ill.: AARP, 1984.
Lester, A. D., and Lester, J. L. Understanding Aging Parents. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980.
U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1989, 109th ed. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.


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