Students of stress, illness, and adaptation have taken a particular interest in bereavement, and with good reason. Death of a spouse is consistently rated as the most stressful of normative events (Holmes & Rahe, 1967), requiring the maximal readjustment in life; it is also a common experience, which nearly half the population will eventually face. The intensity and frequency of this stressor make it of undeniable social importance. At the same time, there are powerful methodological advantages to the study of bereavement for an understanding of stress, coping, and adaptational processes. Because death of spouse is an objectively verifiable event generally beyond the control of the widowed individual, artifacts that plague the study of stress and illness (Schroeder & Costa, 1984) can be minimized.
The results of bereavement studies provide mixed support for the view that life stress causes subsequent mental and physical illness and mortality. Some studies show excess mortality, particularly for males, in the year or two following bereavement (Helsing, Szklo, & Comstock, 1981; Parkes, Benjamin, & Fitzgerald, 1969), but there are methodological difficulties with most studies of mortality (M. Stroebe, Stroebe, Gergen, & Gergen, 1981; Susser, 1981). Studies of health after bereavement are also complicated by the problems of disentangling subjective health perceptions from objective disease processes (Costa & McCrae, 1985a), and one of the few studies to use as control variables baseline measures taken before the loss event concluded that, “using a variety of health indicators, the effects of these [bereavement] events were either nonexistent or slight and brief.