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Research Shows How the Pain of Grief After a Spouse’s Death Can Lead to Severe Health Consequences

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Anyone who has ever experienced the deep emotional pain of grief caused by the death of someone close can understand how profoundly physical that pain can feel. Perhaps you’re going through that kind of loss right now, or you know someone who is. If that’s true, then this recent article from HealthDay could literally be a life saver. The report shows how new research has finally shed light on what we might call “the physiology of grief,” explaining how this heartfelt emotion affects the body, and outlining some of the health hazards that may result.

At the end of the HealthDay article we’ve appended a few suggestions from the website of Mental Health America that can help you seek out support for the grief you may be experiencing – or help you come alongside a grieving loved one. The important take-away from these sources is that grief isn’t something to be endured alone.

The Widowhood Effect

It’s long been understood that “heartbreak” isn’t just a metaphor. Grief can cause real, physical effects on the body, and can even lead to death. They even have a name for it: “the widowhood effect.” But now more than ever we’re starting to uncover exactly why that could happen, thanks to a new study published recently in the journal Psychological Science .

The HealthDay article describing the study states, “When faced with stressful situations, grieving spouses have significant increases in body inflammation. Inflammation is associated with a range of health issues, including serious heart troubles and premature death, the Rice University researchers said.”

Ryan Linn Brown, one of the study’s co-authors, told HealthDay, “I was extremely motivated to publish this work because it gives us insight into how severe grief can encourage inflammation to accumulate in the body and put widow(er)s at risk for cardiovascular disease. Because we face many stressful events each day as humans, this type of response to stress in the lab means that this same process is likely happening repeatedly throughout each day or week for widows or widowers experiencing more severe grief symptoms.”

How Stress Affects Inflammation

“For the study,” the article explains, “the research team analyzed how stress affected levels of inflammatory biomarkers in the blood of 111 adults, aged 35 to 84, who had lost a spouse in the past year.”

At the start of the study, researchers collected blood samples from the participants. They then collected blood samples again 45 minutes and two hours after a stressful event that was part of the study’s research. These stressful events could include a simulated job interview with rapid-fire questions, or even time-pressured testing of complicated math problems.

“On average,” the article states, “participants who reported intense grief after the loss of their spouse — including deep sorrow, numbness, yearning and loss of focus — had a 19 percent greater increase in inflammatory biomarkers after the stressful situations compared to those who reported less severe grief, the investigators found.”

Tips for Living With Grief

Grief is an extremely difficult thing to live with, but it doesn’t have to be as overwhelming and even paralyzing as it often feels. We’ve brought you these tips from Mental Health America in the hope that they could support those of you—or help you to support a loved one—living with grief. Because we feel that they’re so valuable, we’ve repeated them here verbatim:

If You are Living With Grief:

  • Seek out caring people. Find relatives and friends who can understand your feelings of loss. Join support groups with others who are experiencing similar losses.
  • Express your feelings. Tell others how you are feeling; it will help you to work through the grieving process.
  • Take care of your health. Maintain regular contact with your family physician and be sure to eat well and get plenty of rest. Be aware of the danger of developing a dependence on medication or alcohol to deal with your grief.
  • Accept that life is for the living. It takes effort to begin to live again in the present and not dwell on the past.
  • Postpone major life changes. Try to hold off on making any major changes, such as moving, remarrying, changing jobs or having another child. You should give yourself time to adjust to your loss.
  • Be patient. It can take months or even years to absorb a major loss and accept your changed life.
  • Seek outside help when necessary. If your grief seems like it is too much to bear, seek professional assistance to help work through your grief. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to seek help.

If You Are Supporting Someone Else Grieving:

  • Share the sorrow. Allow them — even encourage them — to talk about their feelings of loss and share memories of the deceased.
  • Don’t offer false comfort. It doesn’t help the grieving person when you say “it was for the best” or “you’ll get over it in time.” Instead, offer a simple expression of sorrow and take time to listen.
  • Offer practical help. Baby-sitting, cooking and running errands are all ways to help someone who is in the midst of grieving.
  • Be patient. Remember that it can take a long time to recover from a major loss. Make yourself available to talk.
  • Encourage professional help when necessary. Don’t hesitate to recommend professional help when you feel someone is experiencing too much pain to cope alone.

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(originally reported at

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