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Death of a Partner: How Age Affects Grief and Grieving


In the last few days I have been reflecting how the loss of a partner tends to bring a number of age-dependent issues. In fact over the 14 years that I have been doing this work, I have counselled those bereaved of a partner in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. In this article I reflect on how age typically affects the experience.
I have talked with therapy groups of bereaved partners who have asked the question “what is the worst age to lose a partner?” There is of course no answer to this. The surviving half of a couple in the first flush of love, are devasted by what they have lost, whereas the person separated by death after 30 years or more in a loving relationship, may miss the comfort, and company. The loneliness and turmoil of a life changed out of all familiarity is hard to bear.

I stress that I am talking about trends, likelihood and what is typical. I am also describing grief in long and lasting relationships, where the loss of a partner age 50 typifies a 25 to 30 year relationship. This is not about stereotyping any particular age group. On the other hand, we learn about what to expect based on our experience. Experience, personal and professional, enables those who work with grief to develop empathic skills.

Death of a partner before the age of thirty.
If we lose a partner at this age, there is an increased chance that the death will be from unnatural causes: accident, war, murder or suicide. If the deceased was part of a family, children will be young, and the surviving mummy or daddy will have the heartbreaking task of explaining difficult events to the children. Of course very young children will not understand where mummy or daddy has gone, and may not understand the meaning or the finality of being dead. This means they keep asking difficult heartbreaking questions, sometimes for many many months. Violent deaths bring extra trauma, on top of the guilt which often follows such deaths. The stress of bringing up a child alone, with all the sleepless nights that come withe territory, is likely to compound the grief. Then there are the friends and family to contend with “You’ll meet someone else” is not something you want to hear, and initially, when it feels you live is over, it is something you never believe could ever happen, because you don’t want it, can’t imagine being in the arms of another, and would feel guilty if you considered it, if only for a moment. Then there is the ‘In-law competition’, which goes like this:
“I was his mother, and I can never replace him. You’ve lost a husband but you’re young and will marry again. So my grief is worse than yours”. To compare your grief with another’s is not helpful to anybody.

Death of a partner in your thirties
Many of the typical factors in this decade of life are similar to those of bereaved twenty somethings, especially due to the trend for starting families later. Although accidents etc will still account for many bereavements, deaths from diseases begin to be a factor. If the lost relationship is more than 10 or 15 years old, life may just have been passing its stressful phase of raising babies and struggling financially. Between thirty and forty, there seems to be such a sense of disappointment and unfairness following a death. The survivor finds him or herself grieving not just for the self, but for the life the dead partner will never have; the sadness of never seeing the children grow up. he or she also grieves for the children’s loss, as they watch their struggle to cope without mum or dad. The distraught parent watching the children’s suffering feels a pull to try to be both mother and father to them.
One of the most heart-rending aspects of this work is the death of one of a childless couple, particularly where there had been a deliberate decision to postpone having children for career and financial reasons, and a dream of children eventually. Left with no partner and no children, the man or woman can feel a futility and lack purpose and meaning, coupled with huge regret and the irrevocable childlessness. As the biological clock reaches and passes 40, the grieving partner watches the chance start to slip away.
The in-law game may still be played.

Death of a partner between forty and fifty.
Children will typically be teenagers now, struggling with all the hormone-fuelled emotions and the pressures from peers and from the school curriculum. The surviving parent may feel totally inadequate to cope alone, especially if the children are ‘difficult’. In my experience, teenage children ideally need both parents at this age and it is hard, to say the least, for a lone parent to watch a teenagers grief. Bereaved fathers can feel so out of their depth with many aspects of parenting, but perhaps none more so than with a daughter’s emerging puberty and all that goes with it. Mothers too can feel they have no father to turn to as sons turn from boys to young men. As in younger decades, the survivor grieves for what the deceased is missing.
Towards the age fifty end of the scale, deaths from disease and life- limiting illnesses begin to be more common. this makes it more likely that the family will have watched a slow and demeaning progressive degeneration in health, physical appearance and mobility, ending in death. Often families are traumatised by the nature of the illness, and may end up protecting each other from painful thoughts and feelings. They may avoid others seeing them upset.

Over fifty but under sixty.
Now the children begin to go to university and leave home. Grief is compounded for the lone parent as the nest empties and the prospect of loneliness looms. All the rewards of all those years of saving, sacrificing and planning for companionable retirement have come to nothing. Fifty something bereaved people are often angry and bitter. Sometimes they are angry with the deceased for leaving them, for not looking after themselves, and for not going to the doctor sooner when symptoms first appeared.
The children, now almost adults themselves, can be very protective of the remaining parent, especially if this parent start making friends and start dating, something that seem less of a problem to younger children It is always sad to see family tensions when mum or dad find a new chance of happiness and pursue it. It seems to be that anyone under 30 finds the sexual behaviour of people over 30 hard to imagine, and the thought of sex after 40 unimaginably “gross” (and probably unlikely in the view of the young). The perception of the young does not however match reality and I regularly meet sexual frustration in those bereaved of a loving, sexually active relationship: people well well into their seventies in some cases. Even when full intercourse is no longer was a part of the relationship, kissing, cuddling, holding hands and sharing a bed is part of the relationship of many to the end of life, 80 and 90 plus.
Just as younger people bereaved of a partner find celibacy difficult, this age group of bereaved men and women would very often like to be in another relationship eventually, but can feel very guilty in pursuing the chance of one

Those over sixty, but not yet seventy.
Often the grief is compounded by that sense of resentment with fate, grief for self but also grief for the life the partner was never able to live. This is something shared with all prematurely bereaved partners. People in this decade have often retired. Rather that have the company of work mates they sit at home feeling prematurely old and of little worth. when the children and grandchildren visit they tend to put on a brave face, so that grief becomes hidden from family and friends. Putting on a brave face and playing with the grandchildren can leave pain well masked to the rest of the family. This group are potentially very vulnerable, especially those individuals who as a couple retired to a new house away from friends and family, and now the survivor is isolated. This may be the last generation of the over sixties where the wife never learned to drive, something that can be very isolating in rural communities. Social and geographical mobility may mean that children live many miles away.

Seventy to eighty.
A new spectre is often raised: failing health, where one of the couple has become carer for the other. This puts a huge amount of physical and emotional stress on the carer, whose own health may also be failing. The nature of the relationship may change, as lover becomes carer and the privacy of the home is of necessity invaded by professionals acting in support. When a loved one dies in these circumstances, suddenly all this to and fro of district nurses, Macmillan and Marie Curie nurses, doctors, and other ancillary care visitors ceases, sometimes over night. Grief affects the immune system and grieving people do not always care for themselves well, especially in old age. Health and fitness often deteriorate after bereavement. The surviving partner finds themselves lonely and perhaps now in need of care, with failing mobility, hearing, eyesight and cognitive ability.

Eighty plus.
Many eighty something’s are still active, some, like the great psychiatrist and grief researcher Colin Murray Parkes, are still working.
If there is anything more sad than the elderly person in care with just their memories, alone and isolated and showing signs of dementia, it is the intelligent and mentally alert man or woman resident in a care home because physical difficulties prevent them living safely on their own. From time to time I visit bereaved men and women still managing to stay at home and have some degree of independence, in spite of being wheelchair or walking frame users, or being visually impaired. It is always the loneliness, isolation and lack of intelligent conversation with people that they find most difficult. My belief is that everyone receiving care, should have a picture of her or himself as a young person, to remind those who only see the fading body, that this is a valued human being who contributes to society, not a faceless and unimportant burden on the system just waiting to die.

Ninety plus.
Please please, never stereotype or dismiss on age grounds. My paternal grandmother was mentally alert well into her nineties. We have a neighbour who is 100 in November, lives alone and does all her own housework and cooking, even keeps the garden tidy. I once met a recently bereaved client of 93 looking forward to new hobbies and interests. Very often the problem is not with age, but society’s attitude to the age. The difficulties this age group face is loneliness and worry about their own health. Their own children may be 70 plus and in poor health, or even predeceased them, and family support will need to come from grandchildren. We cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to be bereaved of somebody with whom you have shared a life and a bed for more than 70 years, and the crushing desolation that a loss can bring.

Male/female differences.
It is known that men with school age children are at risk of complicated grief. In my experience, women tend to cope better with grief than men do, although there are of course individual differences. When one of a childless couple dies there may be the regrets discussed above, although some couples choose to have no children. Both men and women who are childless seem to struggle more, as if somehow, children help to give a continued reason to go on living. Sometimes domestic tasks have been split between a couple and in the absence of the mechanic, the gardener, the cook, the accountant etc, things fall apart, adding to the stress of grief. Bereaved individuals in this context can feel unskilled and vulnerable. Men, especially older men from traditional relationships, find tears embarrassing, and will bottle up feelings, even from their own family. When grief does catch them out, the feelings can be very intense. it also seems to me that women, especially of that generation who were at home alone as housewives, are used to spending time without their husband around, are more readily adapted to living alone, whereas men, with company either at home or at work are less adapted to separation and loss.

To the uninitiated reader, this may read as a depressing and tragic account. When somebody dies it is sad, and people ask me if the job is depressing. In fact the job I do is not depressing, because with help, most people do come to terms with loss and adapt to their new life. It is a great privilege to work with clients trying to grasp resilience and relearn how to be in the world without the one they loved and will go on loving. It is a great privilege to teach and train others in this rewarding work, and to constantly be reading and researching ways of becoming more skilled in grief counselling.