Live Well, Die Well. Advice for Surviving Spouses

This fall, a friend's husband died of cancer after being diagnosed four months earlier.  Even though the end came so quickly, they were able to plan for a peaceful death at home, surrounded by loved ones.

Now a new study says you will die as you live, but for surviving spouses, you will live as your partner died.

Say what?

A person's quality of life at the time of their death continues to influence his or her spouse's quality of life in the years following the person's passing, according to new research by University of Arizona psychologists, reports

What's more, the association between a deceased and surviving spouse is just as strong as the association between partners who are both living, the researchers found.

I'm sure my friend finds herself just as married to her spouse now as she was before his death.

"If your partner has higher quality of life before they pass away, you're more likely to have higher quality of life even after they're gone," says Kyle Bourassa, a UA psychology doctoral student and lead author of the paper. "If he or she has lower quality of life before they pass away, you're then more likely to have lower quality of life."


In previous work, Bourassa and his colleagues found evidence that a person’s cognitive functioning and health influence not only his or her own well-being but also the well-being of his or her partner. They wondered whether this interdependence continues when one of the partners passes away.

I can certainly attest to that.  My husband, a dentist, has been depressed every day of his working life because he hates it so much.  That has spilled over into our relationship and even into my own way of thinking.  He sees things very darkly (even though, at heart, he's a happy person, believe it or not), and is terrified of taking a risk, any risk.

At least in that respect, we're different!

Studying 80,000 aging adult participants across 18 European countries and Israel, researchers examined data from 546 couples in which one partner had died during the study period and data from 2,566 couples in which both partners were still living.

 The researchers were surprised to find no observable difference in the strength of the interdependence in couples' quality of life when comparing widowed spouses with spouses whose partners remained alive, notes.

"Even though your marriage ends in a literal sense when you lose your spouse, the effects of who the person was still seems to matter even after they're gone," Bourassa says. "I think that really says something about how important those relationships are."

While it's not entirely clear why the interdependence persists, it's likely that the thoughts and emotions a person experiences when reminiscing about a lost spouse may contribute to the ongoing connection, the researchers say.

 "Relationships are something we develop over time and they are retained in our mind and memory and understanding of the world, and that continues even after physical separation," says Mary-Frances O'Connor, UA assistant professor of psychology and a co-author of the paper who specializes in grief and the grieving process.

But I think that's too glib, attributing it all to memories.  I believe that how our partner feels emotionally when alive automatically transfers to some (most?) of us.  So will I become depressed if I outlive my husband?  Probably only because he is gone.


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