Mental Health And The Stress When A Spouse Dies

People react differently to death – in some cultures, death is celebrated in the belief that the spirit passes from its earthly life towards its next life. Some treated death as it is, a natural state of life which everyone experiences. Others exhibit the most common reaction of humans towards the death of a loved one – by grieving and mourning. Before the era of advanced studies on mental health, most people believe that grieving is ‘healthy’ and necessary so that the family left behind can extinguish their sadness by crying their hearts out.

But recent studies indicate that while people cannot be stopped from feeling terribly sad after experiencing death, people should also be wary of the levels of mental stress that such grieving brings upon them and to have the process of grieving and mourning processed properly so that it does create any problems resulting to the inability of one’s mental heath to cope with the mental stress resulting from the process of grieving.

Normally, people grieve intensively when a member of the family dies – son, daughter, father, mother or even the death of the grandfather or grand mother. In instances wherein the members of the family are close and living together even including members of the extended family, it is normal to take the death of cousins, uncles and aunts in the same level and breadth as their reaction when members of the nuclear family dies. Losing a wife or husband to death is one of the most difficult experiences that can strain the emotional and mental state of a person.

Why is the death of a spouse very difficult to bear to the other half of the pair that was left behind to grieve, that at some extent is risks endangering the mental, emotional, psychological and physical health of the spouse who is alive? Mabry (2006) explains that ‘husbands and wives spend years taking care of each other, thinking of their spouses’ needs, often subjugating their own desires and plans for those of their mates (Marby, p. 12)’.

Becvar (2003) provides her own viewpoint why it is hard for a person to accept the death of a spouse, saying that ‘when a wife, husband or partner dies one loses one’s companion and counterpart and the feelings of aloneness may be overwhelming. Even in the case of a relationship characterized by conflict, the absence of someone with whom to discuss and perhaps commiserate about daily events, the loss of a sexual partner, the lack of someone to share responsibilities for home and family, the burdens associated with being a single parent, as well as concerns about financial security, all may be keenly felt (Becvar, p. 15). ‘

Becvar’s explanation managed to hit not just one aspect and role of the partner that will be removed from the other partner when death comes, and whether or not the realization of the losses came in this particular order or not, the fact is that these day to day experiences is something that is exclusively shared with a husband or wife, and losing that is close to having all of these experiences disintegrate and lose all meaning (that is why some individuals lose sexual appetite when his or her wife or husband dies not so much for fidelity but because the death of the person whom he or she identifies sexual acts and sexual pleasure represents the end of all things that they used to do, including sex).

Death and stress on mental health – Experiencing grief and grieving upon the death of a spouse should be exercised within the parameters of what is still considered as safe for one’s mental health. A person’s mental health has a threshold for the amount of stress it can take, and once the amount of stress is too much for one’s mental health and stability to manage, the person experiences a mental breakdown and suffers from different types of mental health-related ailments. Of the many experiences a person can experience, losing a husband or wife who died is one of the most painful emotional experiences, thus becoming one of the key sources of mourning and grieving-related stress that affects one’s mental health.

Dryden-Edwards (2007) painted a very serious picture about the stress and other impact on mental health that grief puts on a person who experienced death of spouse. The author pointed out that there is a forty percent chance that the spouse of the dead will suffer any one or more forms of anxiety disorder in the first twelve months after the death of the spouse. Dryden-Edwards stressed the severity of the impact of death in the mental stability of the spouse that in just six months after the death of the spouse, the remaining partner is at a very high risk of death herself/himself with a seventy percent chances of dying, a predicament predicated by the impact of stress on the mental health (Dryden-Edwards, 2007).

The immediate days and months following the death of the spouse is indeed difficult in the mental health of the remaining partner, and the stress does not get any easier since according to Dryden-Edwards, there are also many triggers that improve the feeling of grief and exacerbates the level of death-related stress on mental health noting for example how a ‘shared song, television show, or activity can remind the widower of the wife he lost’ (2007).

The proximity of death of the remaining spouse is an important point of research for psychiatrists, especially the role of mental stress that ultimately leads to the circumstances that facilitate the act of death – is the body following the breakdown of mental health? Is the grieving mental stage dictates the body that it does not want to go on living anymore because with the death of their spouse, there is no more reason to live? The point of Dryden-Edwards was supported by Worden, who mentioned in the introduction part of the book about how the author’s own grandfather died a week after his wife died (Dryden-Edwards, 2007).

Death, mental stress and feelings – In order to be able to understand the impact on mental health of the stress brought about by the stage of mourning and grieving, professionals should know the different emotions that a widow or widower feels and experiences, and from there detect which feelings has the most impact and what impact breaches the boundaries of threshold that guarantees mental health stability and endangers the person to mental health risks. Worden (2003) identifies sadness, anger, guilt and self-reproach, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, helplessness, shock, yearning, emancipation, relief and numbness as some of the feelings that the bereaved would feel immediately after the death of a loved ones (Worden p. 28).

Worden stressed the fact that feeling the abovementioned feelings are normal, but the length of the existence of such feelings to a person would help a specialist determine how much stress is piling up already and if this emotional stress is already threatening to break the stability of a person’ mental health. Aside from emotions, Worden also points out the role of the presence of certain thought patterns that a spouse whose mate died is expected to experience of manifest. Like emotions, these cognitions are normal only if experienced in a particular length of time. But these cognitions indicate excessive presence of stress that a person is experiencing that may adversely affect his or her mental health. Worden mentioned in his book how a widow displayed the cognition of disbelief, admitting that she was ‘waiting for someone to wake me and tell me I’m dreaming’ (Worden, p. 9).

Aside from disbelief, there are also thought patterns that indicate confusion, preoccupation (surviving parents with the highest levels of intrusive thoughts were those who unexpectedly lost a spouse with whom they had a highly conflicted relationship), sense of presence and hallucinations. The stress that the mental health of the person is taking can also be manifested by the behaviors that can be noticed by those close to the bereaved. This is usually the physical body’s way to react and extinguish and ventilate the mental and emotional stress brought about by the death and loss, manifesting through the imbalances that can be noticed in what was once and otherwise normal patterns of behavior.

Again, Worden stresses that at some extent, these behavioral patterns that act as outlets allowing the mind to be free from excessive mental stress is considered normal and expected, and reaches a point that it begins to be considered to be a manifestation of a more serious mental problem brought about by the inability of the mental faculty to cope with the experience. The first in Worden’s list is sleep disturbance which is normal like the case he mentioned in his book about a certain Bill who woke up every five in the mourning thinking about the death of his wife, and how it corrected itself and did not result to a more serious mental ailment like any one type of a depressive disorder. A case of the widow was also mentioned in the book who was also battling her sleeping disturbance being unable to sleep alone in the bed after her husband died (Worden, p. 12).

Worden’s list of behavioral manifestation include appetite disturbances, absentminded behavior, social withdrawal, dreams of the deceased, avoiding reminders of the deceased (which Worden explained using the case of a woman who kept all of her husbands belongings as well as photos of him shortly after he died), searching and calling out, sighing, restless overactivity (which Worden explains by the use of the case of the widows in the Harvard study which opted to do things to remain calm and occupied, like driving around and going out at night), crying, visiting places or carrying objects that remind the survivor of the deceased and treasuring objects that belonged to the deceased. While these disturbances are physical manifestations, this point to mental problems (i. e. thinking of the dead husband or wife leading to inability to sleep, etc)

Lack of psychiatric treatment cause of alarm for mental health and the stage of grieving – The stage of bereaving or grieving presents a very critical level of mental stress for the spouse who was left behind, and the stress level is very seldom addressed so that it can be minimized with the use of professional help because, according to James William Worden in the book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy where the author quoted the opinion of professional, Paula Clayton, psychiatric consultation happening close to the time of the death of the spouse is something that is very rare, as well as psychiatric hospitalization, generally because most people hold the belief that the stage of mourning that people have to undergo after experiencing death in the family (including death of spouse) is hardly a cause of mental illness (Worden, p. 3). Conclusion: Death is one of the human experiences that push a person’s emotion and the stability of a person’s state of mind to the limit.

Death renders the worst feeling of sadness, despair and grief when the person who died is a person’s spouse or better half. Why is it important for people to know (1) that grieving because of the loss of spouse to death causes stress and strain in one’s mental health, and that (2) they can and should opt for help and support of specialists like psychiatrists during this kind of situation? So that the knowledge and practice of using professional help to treat the grieving and the stress in his/her mental health finds a way to grow as a practice and so that people would know that they are accessible to the help of specialists should they opt to have one to alleviate the impact of stress to one’s mental health while grieving the loss of a spouse to death.

This is important because the rise of specialization of the studies on mental health resulting from the grief and sadness because of loss to death came about just in time when the natural support groups that previous communities provide to the bereaved are still present and manages to offset the stress to mental health of the experience of mourning, being able to provide the needed support when traditional sources were faltering. Before there are the strong religious ties of the people to their faith, a facet of their social life from which they manage to find solace and comfort during the time of death of the spouse.

There are also the emotional support provided by the members of the immediate and extended families, as well as relatives and neighbors to whom the bereaved finds affinity with. In the continuously changing social structure of the world, some of these emotional support groups are diminishing and disappearing, making grieving more difficult and more stressful for the bereaved.


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