Almost four years after her husband's death from Parkinson's disease, former Sacramento County, Calif., supervisor Sandra Smoley has reinvented her life.
She rented out the Fair Oaks home where she lived with her late husband, architect Walter Rohrer, and moved to a cozy midtown house in the thick of things. In July, she even served as a judge for the Bastille Day waiters' races in midtown.
Having emerged from the long shadow of her husband's 12-year illness and death, she says she loves her life now.
"I think some of that has to do with my outgoing, social personality," said Smoley, 76. "I don't want other women to feel that if they're not happy in widowhood, there's something wrong with them. Everybody is their own person in how they handle widowhood."
And grief has its own timetable.
For the almost 11 million Americans age 65 and older who have lost their spouses, the emotional landscape of older age is defined at least in part by grief. In 2009, some 290,000 men in that age group and 648,000 women became widowed, U.S. Census data show.
Every year, at least 1 million people live through the death of a spouse, the Social Security Administration estimates.
But all widowhood experiences are not the same: Some people seem to remain caught in an ongoing loop of mourning for years, while others manage to find new hope and energy in a relatively short time.
Why? Answers have been hard to come by in the past, but research into bereavement is starting to gain new momentum, just as the enormous age wave of the baby boom generation edges into the territory of widowhood.
As it turns out, the late psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' widely known five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, which together have become a cultural road map for moving through grief — arose from her observational research on what the dying experience, not the bereaved.
What we think we know about grieving, in other words, is flawed, despite the fact that for most people, widowhood is the most significant turning point of older adulthood.
"Many of these people have been married 50 or 60 years," said Linda Tucker, a Sacramento clinical psychologist who directs the Widowed Persons Association of California's grief recovery workshops.
"They've been together all their lives, and suddenly, that person's gone."
She knows. Her husband, Dr. William Tucker, died of an aneurysm in his 60s in 1989. Six months later, her daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and not long after, her sister died.
"It all came crashing down," she said. "I didn't think I'd survive it."
But she did, in part because she found new purpose from her grief: She returned to school for her doctorate in psychology, specializing in working with the bereaved.
More than 60 percent of widows and widowers handle bereavement with resilience, finding moments of solace, even laughter, alongside their sadness, according to Columbia University clinical psychology professor George Bonanno, who researches the science of bereavement.
"We found that most people when a spouse dies are deeply pained and sad but essentially fine," said Bonanno. "And older people cope better than younger people. They're more likely to be resilient. We used to think it was the opposite — that an older person would die of a broken heart. That's not true."
According to Bonanno's research, about 30 percent of the bereaved suffer intense grief for a year or more before beginning to recover. Only about 10 percent of the grieving seem to get stuck in their grief.
While the resilient are at peace with the idea of death long before a loved one dies, his research shows, the opposite is true of people who remain mired in grief: Death alarms them so deeply that they don't want to acknowledge it. They also score highest in terms of being overly dependent on their spouses.
The grieving typically experience overwhelming sadness, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, anger, guilt, loneliness and helplessness. They can be overly sensitive to noise, preoccupied, unable to concentrate.
Researchers know that the circumstances of death can add to bereavement. Survivors of someone who fades slowly from life mourn the loss of their loved one before the actual death. But the suddenness of traumatic death can bring greater emotional suffering to survivors.
And a survivor's own emotional history, including past bouts with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, can cause a long bout of complicated grief, said psychologist Florina Yuger, Sutter Center for Psychiatry's training director.
"The brain replays the death over and over again."