Spousal Resilience

Contrary to popular belief, losing a spouse may in fact build resilience and not lead to depression.

By Carlin Flora, published September 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

About half of older adults who lose a spouse show few symptoms of clinical depression, even in the initial aftermath, according to a new study.

The study challenges the common belief that widows and widowers who seem to cope well must be masking their pain. "We think people must work through the pain of a death," says George A. Bonanno, associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University's Teacher's College in New York City. "If they don't, it is assumed that they are dysfunctional."

In Bonanno's study, published in Psychology and Aging, resilient people were easily comforted by positive memories of their deceased partner, a finding that discredits the idea that Teflon widows and widowers must not have been very attached to their spouses.

Broadly, the research implies that the bereaved must not all be treated equally. Whereas some suffer from a perceived lack of meaning in their lives, other struggle with daily tasks.

Those who are grieving should not feel guilty for setting pain aside. "For some people, reflecting on the death leaves them feeling worse," Bonanno says.

Moreover, those who are supporting a widow or widower shouldn't suppress their sense of humor. Says Bonanno: "When we're around the bereaved, we can smile and laugh, and they won't find it inappropriate."