Widowhood is the common term for the loss of a spouse, either male or female. This altered marital status requires life adjustments by the surviving partner to maintain a meaningful and fulfilled life after the loss. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 11.3 million widows overshadow the 2.6 million widowers and 50 to 70 percent of women over the age of 65 are widowed, while their male counterparts constitute only 12 to 20 percent.
Whereas widowhood issues were once dominated by the elderly, due to rising population rates and world instability (i.e., accidents, war, illness, civil unrest) widowhood rates are significantly increasing in all age and gender cohorts. No matter the age, widowhood represents a life transition to singlehood, including managing life’s complexities and unfamiliar responsibilities formerly borne by two individuals but now delegated to the sole survivor.
Although both widows and widowers may experience grieving equally in depth, gender issues in grief studies suggest diverse areas of differentiation. In general, women seem to grieve more publicly and intensely, whereas males bear grief more passively and privately, thus resulting in slower emotional recoveries. Contributing factors of age, familial responsibilities, finances, and familial support, along with the strength of social and emotional connections, become important elements of the intensity and the duration of widowhood bereavement.
Grieving factors are distinctive and individualistic in practice. Generally, women tend to perceive the loss with greater emotional anxiety. In contrast to the emotional significance of the funeral for a widow, for example, widowers often desire to make peace with the loss and move on, thus placing less emphasis on the milestone that this rite represents. Men tend to be control and reality oriented, displaying less tendency toward sharing, perhaps due to a lifelong pattern of restraining their emotions, contrasted with women, who seek out support, camaraderie, and channels of communication, thereby connecting therapeutically with other widows experiencing the same circumstances. The aftermath of spousal bereavement includes many psychological, emotional, and social upheavals for both genders. Grief symptoms may include eating and sleep disorders, preoccupation, malaise, physical ailments, confusion, communication difficulties, social ineptitude, depression, and loneliness. Combining these already existing symptoms with difficult external influences could heighten grief and often require medical attention.
Widowhood encompasses more than just the death of a partner. The aftermath effects extend to the lives of all surviving familial members. The welfare of the family unit now rests on the newly widowed person. Responsibilities once shouldered by both partners, such as daily living issues and tasks, finances, and social demands, now require the sole survivor to make major decisions. In many cases role reversal responsibilities become overwhelming for the grieving spouse.
Younger widows and widowers have initially shown stronger psychological distress due to the unanticipated death of their spouses. However, it appears that younger cohorts reinvest in life’s activities faster and move on to other marital relationships. Older persons may display less grief due to their experiences with other devastating losses, thereby being armed with coping skills accumulated over the years. Marital relationships may no longer hold the importance to the older widow or widower, and many choose to remain single.
In addressing the personal and distinctive needs of widowhood, support groups become advantageous for encouraging acceptance of a loss, maintaining sociability, and commiserating with widowed peers who have already experienced the multiple dynamics of sorrow and loss. Acceptance of one’s involuntary role as a single person may be the first step in recovery. The availability of a flexible yet stable social network can be crucial in how bereaved spouses adjust. Recuperation, effective coping, and reinvestment in life become important goals as well as resiliency and positive morale for a successful transition to self-sufficiency and personal efficacy.
- Kastenbaum, Robert J. 2006. Death, Society, and Human Experience. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Silverman, Phyllis R. 2004. Widow to Widow: How the Bereaved Help One Another. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
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