Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2015
Bereavement has remained a neglected aspect of the study of ageing, even as its significance in later life has increased. In economically prosperous societies with high standards of health care throughout life, bereavement of spouse has become more concentrated among the older part of the population. Nevertheless, there is a widespread assumption that adjustment to bereavement becomes easier with age. In some respects, this may be true – older couples have had longer to prepare for the inevitability of death – however, it is insufficiently acknowledged that the loss of a partner, particularly someone who has shared most of one's life experiences, is probably the most crucial blow to identity and quality of life that people receive in their lifetime. It is hard to imagine recovering an equivalent relationship. Bereavement of spouse thus becomes a major contributor to loneliness and depression in late life.
For many older people, the experience of ageing involves learning to live alone after many years of living together. Some of those currently old may never have lived alone in their lives, having moved as a young adult from living with parents to living with spouse. Even after the initial period of adaptation, there is a long process of learning to be undergone, not only learning of new skills but finding new ways to motivate oneself to continue to be active, to undertake tasks that previously were more externally driven. Circumstances of course vary greatly between bereaved individuals; but for current generations of older women and men in whom gender-role differentiation was more marked, women often have to learn to cope with financial matters and practical repairs, men with housework and food preparation. But more important – and more demanding of inner psychological resources – is finding a new focus in life, or maintaining a previous one on one's own, after years of being together in partnership.
Our case studies provided a rare opportunity to investigate spousal bereavement longitudinally.