Coping can be the best therapy

There may be something to the notion of the “merry widow” after all. Or if not “merry” — at least coping pretty darn well, often just six months after a spouse’s death. So says a study from the University of Michigan released this week.

That’s in contrast to the whole notion of grief therapy that’s prevailed for decades, which essentially teaches that we humans are fairly fragile creatures needing all sorts of interventions when it comes to handling grief. And if we don’t go through a lot of open emotional anguish, especially if we don’t want to “talk” about it — well then we’re emotionally stunted and we’re not processing our grief appropriately, the mental health experts often tell us.

We’ve long been warned that losing a spouse is one of the most difficult and stressful of life’s losses to absorb. But according to this new study, Reuters News Services explains, researchers “followed 1,500 couples over the age of 65 for years, looked at the quality of their marriages, their attitudes toward one another and the effects on one spouse after another died (and found that) close to half _ 46 percent _ said they had enjoyed their marriages but were able to cope with the loss of a spouse without much grieving.”

These contented widows and widowers said, not surprisingly, they found comfort in the memories of their spouses.

Hmmm. Not much work for the therapeutic industry here.

One interesting tidbit: about 10 percent of the widowed were depressed while they were married, but “cheered up” after the death of their spouse. Ouch! (Sometimes they were unhappy in their marriages, sometimes there was a lot of stress from care giving.)

Yes, about 16 percent of those widowed had really serious grief that lasted more than 18 months. Another 11 percent were depressed six months after the death, yet were doing well 18 months later.

But almost 700,000 people over the age of 65 are widowed every year and overall, it seems, they cope pretty well and show a remarkable resilience after all, finds the study’s lead author, sociologist Deborah Carr, now at Rutgers University. Carr is also a co-author of the recently released book, “Spousal Bereavement in Late Life” (Springer Publishing).

These findings certainly don’t surprise sociologist Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers, who authored, along with psychiatrist Dr. Sally Satel, “One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance” (St. Martin’s Press, 2005). Sommers told me the mental health industry practically makes people feel “guilty” if they are not emotional enough about their grief. “We are a culture preoccupied with self-absorption _ but guess what? Self-absorption is not always good,” says Sommers.

Sometimes, stoicism _ gasp _ is a really helpful coping mechanism.

Sommers and Satel don’t question that some people need grief counseling and other outside help after loss or trauma. They do question our culture’s practice of almost literally imposing it on those going through any kind of difficulty, i.e., “grief counselors” rushing into schools under every provocation, both major and minor, and helping children “cope” _ when there is ample evidence they often cope just fine, even better, without such intervention, thank you.

But too often children and adults alike are told that to grieve or effectively handle any adversity their “process” has to look a certain way _ it has to be “emotionally correct” as Sommers puts it, which typically means a lot of hand-wringing about oneself.

Too bad. This recent study on how people handle widowhood adds to the mounting evidence that that approach is at the very least not always necessary or helpful.

Worse, it seems it’s sometimes quite destructive for people to so ruminate on their loss that they don’t move on with their lives, Carr explained to me.

But in our modern culture of “Therapism,” as Sommers and Satel call it, there is little room for the resilience and strength and, yes, stoicism that has often allowed the human spirit to triumph even in the worst of conditions.

In contrast to the therapy culture, I was encouraged to hear one commentator recently suggest that the next time a student is seriously hurt at a school, for instance, instead of the grief counselors rushing in to help the students with their own “feelings” about it all, they should instead help the children come up with concrete ways they can help out the hurt student or the grieving family.

But I’m not waiting for that idea to catch on because sadly, our modern culture doesn’t seem to like the notion that sometimes, coming to the conclusion that “it’s not all about us” may actually be a very therapeutic exercise.

(Betsy Hart is the author of “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids — and What to Do About It.” She can be reached at or