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Making one's way in the world alone "can be threatening."

Losing mate may be a mortal blow

NORTHWOODS, Mo. - Johnnie McCain misses his wife deeply, to the point he doesn't like to talk about it.

Understandable, given that McCain's marriage lasted 80 years. But his grief in some ways is the same as that experienced by anyone who has lost a partner.

Experts say that the stress from loss of a partner increases the chance of depression, illness and death in the surviving spouse. The sense of loss can be particularly acute during the holidays, and caretakers should be especially watchful.

"The first year is critical," says Tom Meuser, who directs gerontology graduate studies at the University of Missouri St. Louis. A 1969 study published in the British Medical Journal reported a 40 percent excess mortality rate among widowers in the first six months after the death of a spouse. Its title: "Broken Heart."

"Think about it this way," Meuser said. "You suddenly have to think about yourself in a very different way. Suddenly someone is single and has to negotiate his or her world alone. That can be threatening."

Meuser said the difference in mortality rates between men and women is explained by women's being more expressive of their emotions, being more likely to reach out for support and in general having more close friends than men do. Meuser said that men more often remarry in the first year after the death of a spouse, "often in response to that stress of being alone."

McCain, 102, and his wife, Mary Etta, who died Aug. 21 at age 98, had no children. But they had a network of good friends who have helped him. Rose Thompson, who lives down the street from McCain, has been a friend for 54 years. Her sister, Marie Ferguson, who is a goddaughter of McCain; Gabriel Beauvais, a godson; and his son, Daniel, also help out.

They remember how McCain used to hold his wife's arm and carry her purse whenever they left their home. That was before he quit driving and before she became ill and had to be hospitalized.

McCain, in a recent interview at his kitchen table, said his faith has helped him cope.

"I miss her daily," he said softly. "I think about Jesus. I try to keep dedicated through prayer so I can have peace.

"I'm trying to strive to be good so that I'll be ready for the rapture with the saints," he said as his eyes glistened. Meuser, who has not met McCain, said it's common for people in McCain's situation to get their affairs in order.

Meuser said many elderly are helped by a "life review." Meuser, who teaches a course on the subject at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, said the review asks such questions as, "How do I feel about the life I have lived? Have I done the best I can? Will I leave with a meaningful legacy? Do I have unfinished business?" Even if some of the answers to those questions tend toward the negative, the outcome of a review can be positive.

Meuser said that many of those who are despairing are able to come to terms with their faults, and forgive themselves. "Some people die in despair because someone never asked them their story - in effect, to review their lives," he said.

Meuser said someone of McCain's age falls into a completely different category of aging than most people.

"Someone who is in their mid-70s today can expect to live maybe another 10 to 15 years," Meuser said.

McCain has outlived any reasonable life expectancy. "We could consider him an outlier from that perspective and a very successful one," Meuser said.

McCain's eyesight is strong, he walks without assistance and appears in excellent health.

He is amazed he has lived this long. "God still spared me to be here," he said softly. "Sometimes I wonder myself because I've had others try to kill me but God spared me." That's a reference to an incident decades ago when a man chased McCain through the streets and fired three shots at him. One bullet shot right past his head, he said.

McCain recalled another close shave, but, laughing, said, "It isn't necessary to tell it."