A spouse’s death can trigger great stress. One loses one’s life partner, possibly the single person who knew you the best, which can leave a terrible sense of loneliness, loss, and sadness. But the loss of one’s partner can also spur fears and frightening questions. What comes next? Will one be able to manage one’s finances? What if one is also at risk for illness and declining health? Everyone’s questions will be different, but all hinge on fears of the consequences of the loss and whether one can cope with the new reality. Such fear can spur symptoms of anxiety, and once it takes root, anxiety begets more anxiety, more fears.
Although people handle the loss of spouses differently, research has found that such loss often leads to predictable problems. The course of such problems is affected by factors such as one’s gender, age, loss of economic resources, one’s ability to earn an income, available social support, and whether one also experiences depression.
Offering a portrait of widows and widowers drawn from the clinical psychiatric literature, Zisook and colleagues (1990) reported that first seven months after loss of spouse are often the hardest, when severe anxiety symptoms may occur. In a study of men and women whose spouses died of cancer, Gilbar and Dagan (1995) reported that widows typically have the harder time of it, showing greater levels of anxiety and other problems compared to widowers.
Ong et al. (2005) examined the relationship between anxiety, stress, and reports of mastery of daily tasks and problems in a sample of older widows. They found that the women who reported greater degrees of mastery over daily problems did not have anxiety symptoms that were driven by stress. On the other hand, the women who had less mastery over daily events (and consequently greater levels of chronic stress) had anxiety that was closely linked to stressful daily events. In other words, all things being equal, widows (especially those in the bereavement period) lack the “shock-absorbers” that buffer them from daily stress and hassles. These daily hassles then probably fuel anxiety. Confidence in one’s ability to master problems provides these emotional shock-absorbers. Widows with such a sense of mastery may still have some level of anxiety, but their levels of anxiety are not a slave of the day to day difficulties that they run into.
Because most women outlive their husbands, there are more studies on widows than on widowers. However, in recent years there have been several studies on widowers. Some of these research studies have found that anxiety symptoms are also common among widowers following the death of a spouse. An interesting finding reported by Tudiver et al. (1991), and one that runs counter to most research on widowers, is that the consequences of anxiety and other problems seems to be worse among younger widowers (under age 65) than among older widowers. The younger widowers were significantly more distressed and anxious in the Tudiver et al. study.
After a period of bereavement, the surviving spouse typically recovers from the immediate fears and anxieties spurred by the loss. Things get better, all things being equal. Having income or money, friends, and hobbies can spur this recovery. Of course, everyone’s situation is unique. If you find yourself having a difficult time with adjustment after the death of a spouse, one has a number of options. Getting involved with friends, one’s work, or a church are common sources of relief and recover. Asking one’s doctor for help is another option.
In summary, the loss of a spouse can trigger great stress and induce anxiety. The anxiety is modified based on factors such as age, economic resources, one’s ability to earn an income, available social support, and whether one also experiences depression. If you still suffer from severe anxiety more than seven months after the death of your spouse, a visit to a mental health professional may be useful. Psychiatrists may consider medication for individuals with protracted anxiety symptoms following a spouse’s death, although again, every situation is unique.