Fifty-three and a half years.
That’s how long a study of bereaved spouses found it took to nearly completely stop feeling bad when encountering anniversaries and other reminders of their lost partners.
I read this with some bad feelings myself. If you’ve looked at any other Grieve Well posts, you know that ever since shortly after my son Brady died of suicide at age 16 in October 2016, I have been determined to overcome his loss. I have insisted that I would. I have complained bitterly about people who say, “You never get over loss of a child.”
And now this study says, “Sure! You can expect bad grief feelings to nearly disappear –- after 50 years.”
I’m 62 and my chances of living another 50 years are close to zero. So this study is telling me, “According to the best available evidence, you will, in fact, likely never get over loss of your son.”
Still, in addition to committing myself to recovering from grief, I’m committed to an unflinching examination of the best available evidence on grief coping. (I also never expected to reach a point I never felt bad at all about my son’s death. That would be very strange indeed. I did and do expect to get to the point where I don’t feel so horrible so much of the time. To me, that qualifies as “getting over.”)
This study is telling me, “According to the best available evidence, you will, in fact, likely never get over loss of your son.”
Anyway, gritting my teeth, I read this study carefully. And there is both good news and bad news. It’s a little disheartening, but at the same time it can help us know better what to expect as the years and decades grind by. Here’s what I found:
Taking The Long View
The study is titled, “The Time Course of Grief Reactions to Spousal Loss: Evidence From a National Probability Sample.” It appeared in the peer-reviewed Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2006, so it is not exactly news. Plus, the study used data collected for a much older study – more on that in a bit.
The researchers included Camille B. Wortman of Stony Brook University as well as three other academics from well-regarded institutions. Wortman in particular is a widely cited scholar who has conducted a number of influential studies.
The authors describe their purpose like this: “In sum, our overall goal was to assess how quickly and completely people adjust to the loss of their spouse and to provide guideposts validated by research data indicating what typical grieving is.” That all seems excellent and just the kind of information that interests me.
The effort produced several significant findings but the one that struck me most was: “It takes about 53 years for the frequency of anniversary reactions to nearly disappear.” By this, they mean it took that long for widows and widowers to report almost never being upset by thoughts of their lost partners. The researchers pegged this as being 90 percent symptom-free.
“It takes about 53 years for the frequency of anniversary reactions to nearly disappear.”
Note that they didn’t find people on average ever became 100 percent symptom-free. By “almost never,” they meant bereaved spouses thought about their lost partners about once a month. And, remember, this took 50 years. “Twenty years post loss, the widowed thought about their spouse once every week or 2 and had a conversation about their spouse once a month on average,” they wrote.
On a shorter time frame, “It is common for anniversary reactions to be experienced at least sometimes and at somewhat intense levels for a few hours or less for 7–8 years post loss.” It took 15 to 20 years after loss for grief feelings to get close to coming only “rarely.”
To look at it another way, here’s a graph showing how grief reactions went from “frequently” to “rarely”:
Notice again how the grieving never completely stops. After about five years, symptoms only appeared “sometimes.” But it takes much longer for them become rare and they do not decline to zero, according to this analysis.
Based on this study I could still be in for a long haul. Still, there is good news. Let’s move on to that.
The best news about this study is that, in keeping with all other grief research I’ve seen, it found that people got better with time. Not everything improved at the same rate. And some things didn’t change much no matter how long the time frame was. But, overall, time healed.
Most of the improvement happens early. By seven years after the loss, the intensity of the reactions to anniversaries and other reminders had fallen from quite intense to only somewhat intense. As the years and decades pass, the speed of improvement slows but continues.
The study, like others, found that nothing about grief got worse with time, although some things didn’t change much. For instance, the length of time someone felt bad after being reminded of a lost loved one remained pretty constant. Episodes of grieving lasted a few hours or less early on, and still tended to be about that long even after decades.
I think this finding about the duration of episodes of intense grief is worth remembering. It means that even when grief symptoms get really bad, things are likely to feel better in only a few hours.
The study, like others, found that nothing about grief got worse with time, although some things didn’t improve much or at all.
Finding meaning also didn’t get easier with time. A number of research studies have connected finding meaning in a loved one’s loss to less suffering and faster recovery. You can learn more about that in this post: Making Sense of Senseless Tragedy. Those studies have also generally found that finding meaning is not easy and that many people never make much sense of a loved one’s death.
This one further supports another previous finding, namely that if you haven’t made sense of your loss pretty early on, you probably never will. “Taken together, these findings suggest that if individuals are going to resolve the loss of their spouse, they will do so relatively soon after the loss,” the authors write.
On the plus side, the study found that feelings of happiness didn’t come less often in later years. “Respondents reported experiencing happy feelings when they thought or talked about their spouse between sometimes and often… and this level did not vary as a function of years since widowhood,” they wrote.
The two positives of loss identified in this study were increased confidence and feeling like a stronger person as a result of the experience.
The study also looked at some benefits of loss. (You can read more on this at: Finding Benefits In Loss: Not Easy, But Maybe Worth It.) The two positives of loss identified in this study were increased confidence and feeling like a stronger person.
Benefit-finding didn’t seem to be very time-dependent. About 60 percent reported benefits early after loss, and that only rose to about 70 percent even decades later.
This is an unusual study in several ways. One positive feature is that it’s larger than most at 761 people. Also, subjects are from a nationally representative group. That is, it’s not just people who are getting therapy for grief or participating in online survivor support groups. Those are desirable study features and increase the likelihood that the findings accurately represent reality.
As previously noted, the study was published in 2006. And the data it’s based on was collected 20 years earlier. That’s pretty unusual. Here’s what happened:
In 1986 for another study some researchers surveyed 3,600 Americans from a nationally representative sample. This 1986 survey wasn’t focused on bereavement grief. During interviews averaging 86 minutes researchers asked people mostly about productivity, stress and overall health. However, some questions also covered whether and when people had been widowed and how they coped.
Jump ahead 20 years. Wortman and the other grief researchers went back to that earlier study’s data and looked at the responses from people who reported spousal bereavement. That’s where they got the data for the study I’m writing about now.
It doesn’t seem likely that responses to bereavement have changed much since 1986.
Is the age of the data a problem? Not necessarily. It doesn’t seem likely that responses to bereavement have changed much since 1986.
The fact that the study was not presented to participants as a grief study may be a positive. Since they didn’t think they were being interviewed specifically about grief reactions, they might be less likely to distort responses to emphasize grief reactions.
One of the limiting factors is that they only broke the time since loss down into, at minimum, five-year chunks. The actual reporting periods were 0-5 years, 5-11 years, 11 to 21 years and 21 to 64 years after loss.
As a look at what happens over a very long time span, this study is valuable or even unique. But there’s no information about what might happen in shorter periods.
The results did not include anyone who was so profoundly affected by loss that they died, were hospitalized or couldn’t be surveyed due to illness.
The authors point out one limitation that may suggest it understates the long-term impact of loss. That is, it surveyed only people who were alive, not institutionalized and weren’t too sick to be interviewed. So results did not include anyone who was so profoundly affected by loss that they died, were hospitalized or couldn’t be surveyed due to illness.
It may also be significant that people who died more than 50 years ago must have died quite young. It’s possible that when a very young person dies, it has a bigger impact that when an older person dies. I’ll note, however, that some studies of bereaved parents have found greater impact from loss of older children, so this may not be what’s going on here.
Note also that these were self-reported grief reactions from interviews. The original researchers didn’t use standard grief assessments like those described in this post: Yes, You Can Measure Grief and Here’s How.
And the finding about increased confidence being a benefit seems likely to apply only to spousal loss. I don’t think my son’s death has made me more confident, although I can see how losing a spouse could do that.
Maybe the biggest limitation is that the study didn’t reveal anything that the survivors might have done differently to help themselves. There is nothing pointing to specific grief coping strategies here as far as I could see.
One Major Finding
I think that the most helpful finding of this study is that it is normal for bereaved people to sometimes have strong feelings even many years after loss. If you have these feelings when you encounter a reminder of your lost loved one, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. It doesn’t mean you are not getting better.
As the authors put it in their conclusion, “Our results suggest that anniversary reactions can occur decades after the loss (albeit infrequently) and should not be pathologized.”
The most important finding of this study is that it is normal for bereaved people to sometimes have strong feelings even many years after loss.
Although I think this look at the decades-long grief experience is informative and helpful, I’m not suggesting that your grief or anyone’s grief will certainly follow any particular path. It’s likely that your experience will track the averages. But your individual mileage may vary.
Thanks for reading, liking, commenting, sharing and subscribing to Grieve Well. If you have a long-term grief experience you’d like to share, I hope you feel welcome to do so here. And whether it’s been days or decades, I am sorry for the losses that brought each of us here. I hope you get some peace today.