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Do Afterlife Beliefs Help Widowed Spouses Cope?

Sociologist Deborah Carr discusses impact of beliefs on late-life spousal loss

Deborah Carr is professor and chair of the sociology department and a faculty member at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research. Her research focuses on stress and health, with a particular focus on widowhood and end-of-life issues. She is author or editor of five books including Spousal Bereavement in Later Life and nearly 100 articles and book chapters, many describing the ways that older adults adjust to widowhood.

ElderBranch interviewed Dr. Carr to discuss her recently published study, “Do Afterlife Beliefs Affect Psychological Adjustment to Late-Life Spousal Loss,” which she wrote with Shane Sharp of Northern Illinois University.

What led you to research how afterlife beliefs affect how people adjust psychologically to the loss of a spouse late in life? Why is this important? How does your current research augment other work in this area?

One of the biggest questions facing bereavement researchers is: who adjusts well (versus who adjusts poorly) upon the death of a loved one? Researchers have explored a range of religious factors that may be protective, such as spiritual beliefs or frequency of religious attendance, yet none have studied those beliefs that pertain specifically to death and the afterlife. However, scholars have theorized that belief in an afterlife may be protective.

Bereavement researchers have speculated that “continuing bonds” or maintaining emotional ties with the deceased love one may help people adjust to loss. We thought that belief in an afterlife, in general, as well as specific beliefs – including whether people could be reunited in the afterlife, and whether good people were rewarded in the afterlife – might shape how older people adjust to loss.

This is an important question because the vast majority of older married adults will ultimately survive the death of their spouse. Moreover, the majority of Americans – even nonreligious persons – tend to believe in some form of afterlife. It’s important to study whether a particular set of widely held beliefs will protect older adults against the depression, grief, and loneliness that often follows their loss.

Please describe your study. What were your methods? What were your in-going hypotheses?

We used data from a long-running study called the Changing Lives of Older Couples (CLOC) study. This began as a study of more than 1,500 older married persons in the late 1980s. After sample members became widowed, the study investigators re-interviewed them six, 18 and 48 months after their spouse died.

This design helps us to understand how people change and adapt following the death of a spouse, and also how their personal characteristics that date back years before the loss may shape how one adjusts to death.

We analyzed the survey data using statistical analyses such as regression; this method allows us to explore the ways that afterlife beliefs affect different psychological reactions to loss, such as depression, yearning, or anger.

Going into the study, our key hypothesis was that belief in the afterlife would help people to adjust better to loss. Our assumption was that those who had a positive belief about what happened to individuals after they died, and who believed that they might someday be reunited with their now-deceased beloved, would feel less sadness upon their loss.

What were your key findings?

We had expected to find that believing in an afterlife would be associated with better adjustment to widowhood. However, we did not find that to be the case. People who believed in an afterlife were much less angry, which is an important indicator of adjustment.

However, they were also more susceptible to “intrusive thoughts,” or persistent thoughts about their loved one. These thoughts can be distressing and suggest that if bereaved people become focused primarily on continuing emotional ties to their lost loved one – rather than to the people in their daily life – they may fare poorly emotionally.

We also found that it’s not just whether one believes in an afterlife that is protective; it’s what exactly one believes an afterlife is like. Those who hold a bleak view of the afterlife and believe that they will not be reunited with their loved ones evidence more symptoms of depression, anger, and intrusive thoughts, compared to those who believe in a reunion.

We also find that people who are uncertain about what happens in the afterlife adjust poorly to widowhood. In fact, those with uncertain views fare worse than those who don’t believe in an afterlife. Uncertainty about what the future holds is clearly distressing for older adults facing the deaths of the spouse and other members of their social networks.

What are the implications of your findings?

A key implication of our work is that there is no “one way” to grieve. Older adults may show very different symptoms, ranging from sadness to anger to loneliness. Each emotional reaction may require a different intervention. For instance, anger is one of the hardest symptoms for loved ones to manage. Bereaved persons who are very angry may push away those who can help them most. Yet depression may lessen one’s motivation to pursue new relationships and activities.

Practitioners should recognize that there’s not a “one size fits all” approach to treating grief and should instead understand that each widow(er) may respond differently, based on the nature of their lost relationship, their beliefs, and the sources of support they have from friends and family after their partner dies.

What recommendations would you make to caregivers of older people who have lost a spouse late in life as a result of your findings?

The most important thing that caregivers can do is to make sure that the widowed person maintains meaningful social and emotional ties after the loss. Although it’s healthy to hold on to positive thoughts about one’s late spouse, and to continue to do activities that the couple enjoyed together, it is essential that bereaved persons also start to build a new life for themselves, especially after the initial stages of grief have subsided.

It’s also important that caregivers allow the widow(er) to talk about the loss; it can be cathartic for widowed persons to retell the story of how their spouse died, or to reminisce about happy days in the past. Caregivers often mistakenly assume that it’s distressing for widow(er)s to talk about their late spouse, but in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Talking these things out helps widow(er)s to process and ultimately come to terms with their loss.

What are the next steps in your work?

I have studied widowhood and bereavement for nearly 15 years and will continue to study why some fare well and others do poorly in the face of loss. I will continue to explore those attitudes and world views that may protect against or exacerbate grief symptoms.

I will also delve further into the ways that afterlife beliefs affect adjustment to loss. For example, if someone holds a very punitive view of the afterlife, such as “bad people are punished in the afterlife,” might this belief be distressing for widow(ers) who had very critical views of their late spouse?

Likewise, might the belief that “good people are rewarded in the afterlife” be particularly uplifting for widow(ers) who had very strong marriages and held their spouse in very high esteem? These types of studies help us to identify important sources of risk and resilience in older widows and widowers.

By Jeanette Brown



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