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Originally published February 7, 2011 at 10:32 AM | Page modified February 8, 2011 at 12:54 PM

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The widowhood effect: A spouse dies, then soon, the grieving mate

Harvard sociologists say men are 22 percent more likely to die shortly after the death of a spouse, compared with 17 percent for women.

McClatchy Newspapers

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — JD Conger told everyone he couldn't live without his wife, Opal.

He took care of her as her dementia deepened and she slowly faded. But even during her last difficult year, they relied on each other: Frail as she was, she translated the world for him, making up for his failing eyes and ears.

When Opal Conger died at age 97 on the morning of Jan. 13, they'd been husband and wife for 81 years, partners in a marriage so enduring that they were the subjects of a Sacramento Bee story a year ago. While it's left to younger, dreamier generations to describe long-married couples as the loves of each other's lives, the Congers' devotion was clearly an unbreakable bond.

And so JD followed Opal into death just after dawn not 48 hours after she died. He was 101 and he was true to his word.

"He was not going to be here without her," said the Congers' granddaughter, Sue Seaters, 55, a Placer County, Calif., public health nurse. "He went to bed and didn't get up."

As Seaters sat by his bedside in his final hours, he twice lifted her hand to his face and held it to his cheek. Maybe he knew it was his granddaughter — or maybe he thought it was his Opal.

Researchers have a name for the increased probability of death among grieving mates within weeks or months of their spouses' passing: the "widowhood effect."

Among elderly couples, according to Harvard University sociologists, men are 22 percent more likely to die shortly after the death of a spouse, compared with 17 percent for women.

And a National Institute on Aging study found that race plays a part in the widowhood effect, with white partners aged 67 or older more likely than elderly African Americans to succumb early in bereavement.

Findings on the widowhood effect don't come as news to medical professionals, who have observed similar patterns of increased mortality.

"We've all had experiences with this kind of thing," said Trish Caputo, Sutter Auburn Faith Hospice bereavement coordinator and a registered nurse. "Often, it's unrelated to any accident or cardiovascular incident, but sometimes it is related. That can be part of the stress reaction to grief.

"I've had at least three bereaved spouses who've fractured a hip within a week of their loved one's death, one at the funeral of the spouse."

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Complicating the fog of grief is the fact that elderly caregiving spouses like JD Conger are at a 63 percent greater risk of death than older people not caring for their mates, according to American Medical Association research.

Traditional gender roles play a part in the widowhood effect, too: While women seek connection — a trait that serves them well after the death of a spouse — men's drive for independence can leave them isolated and lonely, said Barbara Gillogly, a licensed marriage and family therapist and American River College's gerontology department chair.

"It's just the difference between men and women and how we're socialized," she said. "Connection helps us negotiate old age. Independence does not do us well."

With his wife's death, she said, it's possible that JD Conger lost his meaning in life.

"His job was done," said Gillogly.

To the people who knew them in their last days, the timing of the Congers' deaths is both sweet and sad — not tragic, simply poignant.

"They were so attached to each other," said Virginia Stone, marketing director at Carmichael Oaks Senior Living, where the Congers lived for the past few years.

"They kept each other going. It's such a touching love story. One of the things JD said when she passed was, 'How can I go on without her?"'

He once told his granddaughter that he'd live to 105 if Opal could find the strength to live to 100.

"They had each other, but their bodies were wearing out," said Seaters.

After they died, she asked her father and her aunt if she could keep her grandparents' wedding rings as a symbol of their lasting devotion. But Opal's rings had slipped off her frail hand and seemed lost.

It turned out that someone — perhaps JD, a retired lumber mill supervisor — had the practicality to stash the rings in the dresser, safely knotted in the toe of a sock.

"It's that love they had for each other," said Seaters. "They were hardworking people. You didn't see that love every day. But it was there."

Until death parted them, and beyond.

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