Francine Russo, a journalist for Time Magazine recently reported on a study in the journal Pain Research and Treatment, titled “The Relationship Between Marital Status and Psychological Resilience in Chronic Pain.” For Russo, the study aroused her curiosity as she was widowed at the age of 46.

Says Russo: When I was widowed suddenly at age 46, it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. The foundation of my world collapsed. I now had to be the only parent to my two grieving girls. I had to learn to manage the micro-financial empire of my household. I had to do all the driving and many other things my husband had done.

But most of all, I had to cope with my own pain. Unlike other blows life had dealt me – breakups, professional failures – I could not assuage it with the comfort of friends. It was like a fire I had to walk through to get to the other side. And I did, eventually, even with a few scars. Since then I have felt stronger to deal with life’s wounds. But I’ve always been a baby about physical pain. As I get older and imagine I may someday have to suffer ongoing physical pain, I doubt my ability to endure it. So I was intrigued when I spotted new research suggesting that widows do better with chronic pain.

The study, conducted at the Medical College of Virginia Pain Center evaluated almost 2,000 patients. The researchers expected to find married people doing better at dealing psychologically with chronic pain, because of support and connection to their spouses. Surprisingly, it was only the widows and widowers who suffered less anxiety, depression, fear and anger in response to their chronic pain.

Lead author James Wade, a professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine said, “We think that loss may force us to develop coping strategies to bounce back from threats of quality of life, a kind of emotional inoculation against future lifestyle threats.” And, Wade believes this is great news for an aging population – a significant amount who can expect to live for years after the death of a spouse.

Laura Watson, a gerontological psychologist at California State University at Fullerton suggests that widows may be better able to handle chronic pain because spouses may become enablers of pain, such as telling the spouse who is in pain, “Oh, sit down honey, I’ll do the dishes.” Widows may do more for themselves, out of necessity.

Watson believes the majority of widows bounce back within 2 years of their loss. Losing a spouse can create increased resilience, and this can feed into a greater sense of autonomy and confidence.

It will take more research to assess how the experience of pain affects widows’. Watson believes,” If these results hold up to scrutiny, it could be really powerful in the field.”

And journalist Francine Russo adds, “And in my life – if I am ever put to the test.”       Time    November     2013


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