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New study shows effects from spousal death during COVID-19

Those who lost a spouse during the COVID-19 pandemic are at a greater risk of loneliness or depression in comparison to widows and widowers pre-pandemic.
Researchers in the study analyzed data from 27 different countries over the course of two time periods: before the coronavirus pandemic, from October 2019 to March 2020; and early in the pandemic, from June to August 2020.

A new study on spousal death during the COVID-19 pandemic is shedding light on the mental health struggles that widows and widowers experienced over the past two years. 

Losing a spouse is undoubtedly one of the most difficult experiences one can have. The study drew on previous research that indicated that recent spousal loss can have severe consequences on mental and physical health as well as elevate mortality. 

According to Ashton Verdery, a sociologist and demographer who is one of the authors on the study, those who lose a spouse during the pandemic experience characteristics of ‘bad death.' 

“Other studies have found that when a person experiences a sudden or traumatic ‘bad death’ — characterized by such factors as greater pain, social isolation and psychological distress — it can be harder on their loved ones, who then go on to face elevated health risks of their own,” Verdery said in a statement.

The study emphasizes that it is not only those who contract COVID-19 that experience worsened health but also loved ones and spouses. Another study by Verdery and sociologist Rachel Margolis indicate that 8.8 million individuals lost close family members to COVID-19 by April 2022. The results show that pandemic widows and widowers experience increased feelings of loneliness and depression, in addition to potentially worsening health outcomes. 

“We know from broader evidence that the way in which loneliness and grieving is bad for your physical health is through a few different pathways,” Margolis said in an interview. 

She says that physical health can be affected by a spouse losing a partner for physical activities. In elderly couples, one can also lose their health support system if spouses typically remind each other to take medication or see a doctor for a checkup. 

“They have fewer people to talk to and engage in conversation less, especially if they only lived with their partner,” she said. “And so what we can see is that people who are widowed often experienced some cognitive decline. They are less socially active because a lot of people used to do activities with their partners and that can have bad consequences for health.” 

Results of the study underscore the need for mental health professionals and family doctors to check on widows and widowers who lost their partner during the pandemic. 

Margolis says that the pandemic is changing the way individuals are preparing for end of life. 

“One of the reasons why COVID was so different for people is that, you know, a lot of these people died in isolation, and they weren't expecting to die so they didn't have their affairs in order. They didn't have all of their health paperwork in order and so a lot of people died alone, and I think many people are thinking about this way earlier in life.”