The purpose of this chapter is twofold: to summarize basic results from two longitudinal studies of how elders adapt to death of their spouse, depending on whether the death was due to natural causes or to suicide; and to review what these studies have found regarding the possible correlates of good versus poor outcome. A final objective is to present some thoughts about unanswered questions and to suggest further research to shed light on these issues.
The University of Southern California (USC) spousal bereavement study
Although spousal loss occurs predominantly late in life (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1988), few studies have systematically assessed the response to this loss in older adults. The primary objective of the USC study was to assess longitudinally the impact of spousal loss on the mental and physical health of older widows and widowers. In addition, we also evaluated specific predictors of bereavement outcome in light of existing theory and previous research (e.g., Freud, 1917b; Parkes & Brown, 1972). Of particular interest in the USC study were the following factors, each of which alone, and in combination, was thought to be causally related to bereavement outcome: personality and ego strength, social support, religiosity, marital quality, anticipation of loss, and cumulative losses/stressors.
Sample characteristics and research design
Two samples of older adults were compared in the USC study. One sample comprised 212 recently widowed elders (99 males and 113 females) who had lost their spouse as a result of natural causes.