From loss to loneliness: The relationship between bereavement and depressive symptoms

J Abnorm Psychol. 2015 May;124(2):256-65. doi: 10.1037/abn0000028. Epub 2015 Mar 2.


Spousal bereavement can cause a rise in depressive symptoms. This study empirically evaluates 2 competing explanations concerning how this causal effect is brought about: (a) a traditional latent variable explanation, in which loss triggers depression which then leads to symptoms; and (b) a novel network explanation, in which bereavement directly affects particular depression symptoms which then activate other symptoms. We used data from the Changing Lives of Older Couples (CLOC) study and compared depressive symptomatology, assessed via the 11-item Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D), among those who lost their partner (N = 241) with a still-married control group (N = 274). We modeled the effect of partner loss on depressive symptoms either as an indirect effect through a latent variable, or as a direct effect in a network constructed through a causal search algorithm. Compared to the control group, widow(er)s' scores were significantly higher for symptoms of loneliness, sadness, depressed mood, and appetite loss, and significantly lower for happiness and enjoyed life. The effect of partner loss on these symptoms was not mediated by a latent variable. The network model indicated that bereavement mainly affected loneliness, which in turn activated other depressive symptoms. The direct effects of spousal loss on particular symptoms are inconsistent with the predictions of latent variable models, but can be explained from a network perspective. The findings support a growing body of literature showing that specific adverse life events differentially affect depressive symptomatology, and suggest that future studies should examine interventions that directly target such symptoms.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Bereavement*
  • Depression / psychology*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Loneliness / psychology*
  • Male