Unexpected Grief May Hasten Mortality of Bereaved

When someone loses a loved one, feelings of grief can be overwhelming. Bereaved individuals can experience a range of emotions, inside and outside the scope of the generally recognized stages of grief. However, according to the results of a recent study, the circumstances surrounding the death can have an even bigger impact on grief, and can even increase the risk of mortality for the bereaved.

Sunil M. Shah, MBBS, of the Division of Population Health Sciences and Education at St. George’s University of London, recently led a study that looked at how losing a loved one unexpectedly compared to expectedly affected mortality. Shah evaluated the records of over 170,000 couples over the age of 60 and looked at death from chronic illness versus unexpected death and how these deaths impacted the risk of mortality on the surviving partner in the first 12 months following the death.

The results revealed that partners who had lost their loved one unexpectedly were more likely to die in the first year following their loss than those who lost loved ones to a chronic illness. This finding could be interpreted in a number of ways. Individuals who are aware of the impending mortality of their loved ones may be better prepared, emotionally, financially, and physically, to carry on after the death. They may surround themselves with a support network and may take steps to ensure their own health.

In contrast, those who do not expect the death are often left unprepared for life after the loss. In these cases, they may not have adequate social, emotional or even financial resources to care for themselves, especially during the grieving phase. This can increase the negative impact of the loss to their own health and well-being, putting them at risk for illnesses and early mortality.

Shah believes that this research demonstrates the unique way in which death affects an elderly partner and that this information sheds light on a need in the elderly community. “Our findings highlight the potential value of preparing individuals for the death of a spouse with known morbidity and providing extra support after bereavement for those experiencing sudden unexpected bereavement,” added Shah.

Shah, Sunil M., MBBS, MSc, et al. (2013). The effect of unexpected bereavement on mortality in older couples. American Journal of Public Health 103.6 (2013): 1140-5. ProQuest. Web.

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  • Ann

    August 20th, 2013 at 8:28 PM

    Two of my aunts and one uncle passed away within weeks of their partner’s passing.I don’t think this is a coincidence.The person you’ve been with for decades,the person you’ve been the closest to-the passing of that person can put you under tremendous amounts of trauma and pressure.

    I think this study touches upon a subject that is often ignored and I hope more people realize this truth.Support is definitely necessary for those that have lost their partners.

  • gretchen

    August 21st, 2013 at 3:55 AM

    I experienced this in my own family pretty recently. We lost my father unexpectedly to a car accident and I think that after that my mom literally grieved herself to death. She was the model of good health until he died, and it was not three months until she was gone too.

  • Mason

    August 21st, 2013 at 11:15 AM

    I guess that these things that cannot be prepared for are the ones that often take us by surprise and can do so much damage to us.
    If you know that something is coming then it feels like you can prepare yourself both emotionally and physically, and in some ways you can be ready for the shock of it when it happens.
    But when you lose a loved one very suddenly, then your world changes in a moment- one day you have them, and in a second they are gone forever. You may not have even had the chance to say good bye and for some that weighs very ehavily on them, almost too much for them to go on.

  • beatriz

    August 26th, 2013 at 3:56 AM

    not sure that you can ever fully prepare yourself for loss like that of someone you love dearly, but to have them taken from you suddenly with little to no warning is the worst kind of loss

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