Losing a Spouse

When a couple has been together for as long as four or five decades, it’s almost as if they don’t know how to live without each other. Sometimes death even follows such a heartrending bereavement; the remaining spouse literally dies of a broken heart. Indeed, a study undertaken by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2013 found that a surviving spouse over the age of 50 has a 66% increased risk of dying within the first three months of the spouse’s death.

Other studies have shown that a key element of the immune system that protect one against lethal infections is actually weakened during the grieving period. This is only the case for seniors (those over 65 years old). What happens is, the neutrophil white blood cell (that works to attack bacteria or other infectious agents resulting in serious illnesses) stops working properly.

According to Health Psychologist, and Psychoneuroimmunology/Psychophysiology expert, Dr. Anna Phillips of Birmingham University, the study of the neutrophil could be “one of the key reasons why older people are more susceptible to infection after a bereavement.” This research compared the functional response of neutrophils in 30-strong groups of bereaved younger and older people as well as individuals who were not grieving.

What happened with the older people was that they had a lessened capacity to kill bacteria with reactive-oxygen species (a type of destructive molecule). She thus concluded: “During the difficult weeks and months after loss we can suffer from reduced neutrophil function. Neutrophils are the most abundant type of white blood cell and as such are essential at combating infections and illnesses, so we become vulnerable when this happens.” This could be caused by an interruption in the balance of dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate (DHEAS) and cortisol, that are needed for coping with stress. In younger people these hormones remain balanced; but with the elderly their cortisol rises and their DHEAS becomes too low.

If both partners are somewhat sick and not so able, living together often helps them maintain independence. They rely on each other and somehow muddle through. But when one passes away, the other one has to not only cope with that grief but also become self-sufficient. Oftentimes that is just not possible.

How does one help an elderly person avoid the pitfalls of grieving? Some signs to look out for were assembled by the American Hospice Foundation. These include: disorganization (taking longer than normal to complete a task), forgetfulness (missing appointments), inability to concentrate (can they still enjoy a book?), lessened interest in things (things they used to find fun now hold nothing for them), and an obsession with death (if they keep talking about ‘joining’ their partner). Check these issues regularly.