Key Takeaways

  • With the widowhood effect, older adults who have lost a spouse face an increased risk of dying compared to those whose spouses are living.

  • Causes of the widowhood effect may include self-neglect, lack of a support network, and lifestyle changes that follow the death of a spouse.

  • When you’re mourning the death of a spouse, social support and self-care can help you manage your grief and find healing.

We’ve all heard stories about inseparable older couples where one passes away shortly after the other. The idea of dying from a “broken heart” may seem like a romantic sentiment; something straight out of a Hollywood love story. But there's an official name for this very real phenomenon. It's called the widowhood effect.

With the widowhood effect, older adults grieving a spouse’s death have an increased mortality risk compared to those whose spouses are living. This effect has even been documented by researchers. A 2013 study that appeared in the Journal of Public Health showed that people had a 66% higher risk of dying within the first 90 days of losing their spouse. This discovery held true for both men and women.

A previous study from 2008 drew a similar conclusion, finding that surviving spouses had up to a 90% chance of dying within the first three months following the death of their spouse.

What causes the widowhood effect?

Researchers aren't sure. There are numerous theories, but no hard evidence. Some potential reasons why one grief-stricken spouse dies soon after their partner include:

  • The physical and mental tolls of being a caregiver. Adults who spend all their time caring for an ailing spouse may neglect their own health and well-being. This sense of apathy may extend into the grieving process once the spouse passes on. For example, the surviving partner may fail to take prescribed medications or keep important doctor's appointments.
  • The physiological impact of grief. Symptoms of grief can range from sleep disruptions and weight loss to lower immunity and illness. According to a 2018 study by researchers at Rice University, men and women suffering intense grief after their spouse's passing experienced up to 17% higher levels of inflammation in their bodies. Elevated levels of inflammation have been linked with serious health risks such as heart attack and stroke. 
  • A lack of social support. This is especially true if the surviving spouse relied on their partner to maintain an active social calendar and stay connected to family and friends.
  • Changes in living environment (e.g. leaving their longtime home to reside with a family member). The lifestyle disruptions that often occur after a spouse’s death may negatively impact the surviving spouse’s mental and physical state.

In some cases, the love shared by spouses is so strong that grief does indeed cause actual harm to the heart.

This effect is called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy) and can lead to a weakening of the heart muscle. It tends to occur in cases of sudden, traumatic death and is more likely to impact women.

Ways to cope with the death of a spouse

Losing a beloved spouse can be heart-wrenching. When you’re moving through the stages of grief, it may be hard to imagine life without your partner. However, there are steps you can take to help you work through the grieving process and embrace the new chapter that awaits you:

  1. Talk to a qualified counselor. The complex emotions associated with losing a loved one can be overwhelming and difficult to sort through on your own. Meeting with a licensed mental health professional, whether face-to-face or online, can help you come to terms with your loss and adjust to life without your spouse. Ask your doctor to refer you to a mental health counselor in your area. You can also check with local hospitals and nursing homes to find support groups that specialize in spousal bereavement.
  2. Focus on self-care. It's common to lose interest in eating and cooking after losing a spouse. However, this is an important time to make sure your body is getting the nourishment it needs to carry on. Sleeping well, limiting alcoholic beverages, and incorporating physical activity into every day can also help you feel your best and cope with the changes happening in your life.
  3. Stay busy. The loss of your life partner can upend your normal routines, and you may suddenly find yourself with a lot of empty hours to fill. Finding new ways to occupy your time can help give you a renewed sense of purpose. Consider volunteering at a local school or food bank, pursuing a new hobby, or even getting a part-time job if you are able to. Renew that library membership and catch up on all those books you’ve been meaning to read.
  4. Get a pet. If your spouse has recently passed on, the silence of an empty house can be daunting. If your lifestyle, health, and budget allow it, consider adding a four-legged friend to your household. A 2020 study published in The Gerontologist found that grieving spouses without a pet suffered greater levels of loneliness and depression than those who owned a cat or dog. Pets, with all their unconditional love, can give you a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
  5. Turn to others. Social support has been shown to be beneficial during the grieving process and can actually help counteract the widowhood effect. If you’re mourning the death of a spouse, make it a point to reach out to family and friends—even if it's just a short phone call. When you're feeling ready, other ways to stay connected and busy include joining a book club, taking a fitness class, or participating in activities at your local community or senior center.

Grief usually eases with time

If you’re wondering how to recover from losing your spouse, keep in mind that you should mourn at your own pace. We all deal with loss in different ways. Try not to succumb to pressure—from yourself or others—to “move on” within a certain amount of time.

One thing seems to hold universally true: time heals. Human beings are resilient creatures with the power to find joy and new meaning in life even after a painful loss. In one study on grief, clinical psychologist George A. Bonanno found that acute grief symptoms eased for 50% of participants by six months after a loss. Although thoughts of your spouse may initially be painful, focusing on good memories and positive emotions can help you find the peace and serenity you deserve.