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Bereavement And Adaptation

Most people are not prepared for the death of a spouse. Much of the stress of bereavement evolves from the loss of support of the deceased within the family system. The usually painful transition that occurs with the loss of a spouse begins as one assumes the new roles of a new status.

Roles and status positions must be shifted, values and goals reoriented, and personal and family time restructured in households with children who live with a widowed parent. The potential for role strains and interpersonal conflicts becomes evident as relationships are lost, added, or redefined (Pitcher and Larson 1989). Loneliness is a major problem. In the case of older bereaved spouse, in particular, loneliness and difficulties associated with the tasks of daily living are among the most common and trying adjustments encountered (Lund 1989). In many modern societies, this adaptive process typically proceeds with few or no guidelines (or even ambiguous signals) from the culture as to how to act. In this regard, the role of the widowed person tends to be in a "roleless" role, inasmuch as it lacks clearly specified norms or prescriptions for appropriate behavior (Hiltz 1979).

Although survivors face some common problems both within and outside the immediate family, it is difficult to specify a normative course of adjustment. This is partly because widows and Siham Thabet, a widow, sitting under portraits of her husband Thabet Thabet, a Palestinian dentist and political leader who was killed by Israeli forces. LAURENT REBOURS/AP WIDE WORLD PHOTOS widowers are a diverse group characterized by wide differences in social and psychological characteristics. It is also due to the fact that spousal loss evokes a broad spectrum of emotional and behavioral responses from the bereaved, depending on such factors as the nature of the marital relationship and the timing and circumstances under which death occurred. For example, a wife whose husband was killed on the battlefield, in an automobile accident, or in a robbery will respond differently than if he had committed suicide or suffered a long terminal illness. Many other types of such antecedent conditions, such as the quality of the marital relationship or the age of the deceased, affect bereavement reactions and coping strategies of survivors. In U.S. society, for instance, a young wife whose life is suddenly taken is mourned differently from a much older woman, married fifty years, who succumbs after a lengthy illness. As a result of such factors, responses to bereavement often show substantial variation.

Studies of whether anticipatory grief, or fore-warning of the pending death of a spouse, contributes to bereavement adjustment have yielded conflicting results (Roach and Kitson 1989). Some suggest that such anticipation is important because it allows the survivor to begin the process of role redefinition prior to the death, whereas unanticipated death produces more severe grief reactions. Those who experienced unexpected deaths of their marital partners report more somatic problems and longer adjustment periods than those who anticipated the loss. Anticipatory role rehearsal does not, however, consistently produce smoother or more positive adjustment among the bereaved. Again, the effects of such preparation vary with the age of the person, whether death occurs as an on-time versus off-time event, and other factors. In sum, the coping strategies of survivors vary with the timing and mode of death, which in turn influence the bereavement outcome.

In making the transition to widowed status, the bereaved are often confronted with a variety of personal and familial problems. They are not always successful in adapting to these circumstances. This is reflected in the findings that, when compared to married persons, the widowed rather consistently show higher rates of mortality, mental disorders, and suicide (Balkwell 1981). Although it is generally agreed that the bereavement process is stressful, studies of its effect on physical health have not yielded consistent results. The evidence does show that people who have lost their mates generally experience poorer health than those who are still married, but the reasons for this remain unclear.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaOther Marriage & Family TopicsWidowhood - Demography Of The Widowed, Bereavement And Adaptation, Bereavement And Developmental Stages, Gender Differences, Social Support And Reintegration