Bereavement: Reeling in the Years

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, February 7, 1987 | Go to article overview

Bereavement: Reeling in the Years


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Bereavement: Reeling in the Years

It is a chilling statistic: Sudden, traumaticaccidents are the number-one killer of persons aged 44 and under in the United states, claiming approximately 150,000 victims annually, with nearly one-third of those deaths stemming from car crashes. Yet the psychological impact of these losses on family members and the time required to complete the mourning process remain largely unexplored.

An extensive follow-up study of individualswho lost a spouse or child in a motor vehicle crash now indicates that emotional recovery is longer and more difficult than has often been assumed by clinicians and researchers. Four to seven years after the accident, bereaved spouses and parents in the study reported marked depression and a failure to resolved their loss.

"Our data clearly indicate that followingthe traumatic loss of one's spouse or child, lasting distress is not a sign of individual coping failure but rather a common response to the situation," says Camille B. Wortman of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who conducted the study along with Michigan's Darrin R. Lehman and Allan F. Williams of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Washington, D.C.

The data also undermine current theoriesof bereavement that assume an individual will return to normal functioning within several years after a loss has occurred. One view is that a bereaved person goes through several stages of emotional distress, including shock, anger and depression, followed by resolution of the loss. Failure to achieve such resolution after several years, according to psychoanalytic theory, signals an inability to free oneself from the emotional bond to a deceased loved one.

Despite these contentions, say the researchers,only the new study and a Harvard University project have carefully examined the effects of bereavement beyond two years after the loss. In the Harvard study, 59 widows and widowers were interviewed two to four years after their spouses died. More than 40 percent were rated as showing moderate to severe anxiety compared with nonbereaved controls. Those with brief or no warning of their spouse's death did much more poorly than those with at least two weeks to prepare themselves for the loss.

Lehman and his colleagues, whosereport is in the January JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, looked even farther down the road of the mourning process after a sudden loss. They used state records to identify every motor vehicle fatality in Wayne County, Mich. …

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