Losing a spouse is hardest on the middle-aged

It hits them hard, but experts say they recover in a meaningful way

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 20: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg looks on before speaking in conversation with Salesforce chairman and CEO Marc Benioff at the 2013 Dreamforce conference on November 20, 2013 in San Francisco, California. The annual Dreamforce conference runs through November 21. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Sheryl Sandberg is known for gracefully juggling multiple roles: executive, mother, wife, coiner of feminist slogans. And last month, when her husband died suddenly after falling off a treadmill, the 45-year-old Facebook exec was thrust into a new role: young widow.

Another public figure also lost a young spouse this week: Hallie Biden. On Saturday, Hallie’s 46-year-old husband, Delaware politician Beau Biden, died of brain cancer. Beau had already had a premature brush with death, when he survived the 1972 car accident that killed his mother and also made his own father, Vice President Joe Biden, a widower at the age of 29. Joe Biden has said that the period following that loss was “the first time in my life I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide.” But Biden pressed on. Within five years, he married Jill, who has been his wife for nearly 4 decades.

Losing a life partner is devastating no matter how old you are, but it may be hardest on people in middle age. Though most of the research on the loss of a spouse focuses on the elderly, psychologists have examined the impact of this event at different points in life. Middle-aged people, it turns out, are more likely than older or younger widows and widowers to exhibit symptoms of depression and what’s known as “complicated” grief—grief that becomes a preoccupation and prevents the bereaved from going on with life—for months, years, even decades. (Grief becomes “complicated” for about 10 to 15 percent of widows and widowers, according to Robert Neimeyer, a psychologist at the University of Memphis.)

In middle age, people are at “maximum engagement in the world,” George Bonanno, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and a leader in the study of grief and trauma, told Women in the World in a phone interview. It’s the point at which they’re most in need of a partner: “They’ve committed themselves to careers; they’re raising children; they often have older parents they’re responsible for.” People in middle age—more than any other age group—have a heightened risk of dying in the period immediately following their spouse’s death. Overwhelmed by an unexpected encounter with mortality, they “may get careless about life and death,” Bonanno said. They have a higher rate of accidents, which can represent an “indirect suicide.”

Older people, it appears, are more adept at coping with loss. By old age, Bonanno says, they’ve come to accept that death is a part of life. “As you get older, you realize it’s going to end. You start losing your parents, people you know. It’s less of a jarring event.”

Young men and women who lose spouses also tend to be more resilient than the middle-aged; they’re likely to have accumulated fewer responsibilities in the world, and they have more time left to find a new partner. That said, young survivors may struggle to understand their loss. The death can have an outsize impact on their worldview, which might not be fully developed. Neimeyer explained, “When we experience death early, a lot of our assumptions about how the world works may die right along with our loved one: the sense of justice, of being able to predictably engage life, of trusting that others will be there” as long as expected. And whereas older people are likely to have friends and peers who are also coping with the death of a loved one, younger people may feel “alienated from the community who has not suffered such a loss,” said Katherine Shear, a psychiatrist at Columbia, in an email.

The youth of the one who’s passed away can also heighten the sense of loss. “On average, grief is more intense and longer lasting when we lose someone who is a child or young adult, or an older adult whose death is untimely—sudden, unexpected, violent,” said Shear.

Men and women tend to grieve the loss of a spouse in different ways. Women may be more prone to the kind of debilitating grief and rumination that can prevent them from carrying on with their lives; men’s grief tends to be more action-oriented. “They look for
ways of fixing the problems presented by the loss,” says Neimeyer. Men are more likely to remarry quickly, according to Shear.

Overall, though, the psychologists I spoke to emphasized that most widows and widowers do recover. “The most common response to bereavement is resilience,” said Neimeyer. “Usually within a period of months, people find ways to continue to live a life that matters to them, to maintain close connections to other people, to retain decent functioning in their families and lives.”

Thirty days after her husband’s passing, Sandberg is already finding meaning in her suffering. “I have lived thirty years in these thirty days,” she wrote in a Facebook post today. “I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.”

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