Mourning in a Pandemic: The Differential Impact of COVID-19 Widowhood on Mental Health

The death of a spouse is an established predictor of mental health decline that foreshadows worsening physical health and elevated mortality. The millions widowed by COVID-19 worldwide may experience even worse health outcomes than comparable pre-pandemic widows given the particularities of dying, mourning, and grieving during a pandemic defined by protracted social isolation, economic precarity, and general uncertainty. If COVID-19 pandemic bereavement is more strongly associated with mental health challenges than pre-pandemic bereavement, the large new cohort of COVID-19 widow(er)s may be at substantial risk of downstream health problems long after the pandemic abates.

We pooled population-based Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe data from 27 countries for two distinct periods: (1) pre-pandemic (Wave 8, fielded October 2019–March 2020; N = 46,266) and (2) early pandemic (COVID Supplement, fielded June–August 2020; N = 55,796). The analysis used a difference-in-difference design to assess whether a spouse dying from COVID-19 presents unique mental health risks (self-reported depression, loneliness, and trouble sleeping), compared with pre-pandemic recent spousal deaths.

We find strong associations between recent spousal death and poor mental health before and during the pandemic. However, our difference-in-difference estimates indicate those whose spouses died of COVID-19 have higher risks of self-reported depression and loneliness, but not trouble sleeping, than expected based on pre-pandemic associations.

These results highlight that the millions of COVID-19 widow(er)s face extreme mental health risks, eclipsing those experienced by surviving spouses pre-pandemic, furthering concerns about the pandemic’s lasting impacts on health.
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