Felix M Berardo. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.
Eventually, all marriages are disrupted by the death of a spouse. This event affects the surviving partner and the lives of children and kin, as well as the community and larger society. Responses to partner loss are partially determined by cultural and subcultural norms, antecedent conditions reflecting the nature and meaning of the marital relationships, and characteristics of the bereaved themselves. Adjustments to widowhood also depend on societal expectations, gender, class, race, and ethnic norms.
Losing one’s mate presents a range of adaptational challenges to spouses and families. In most instances, considerable emotional and cognitive effort is initially expended by the bereft as they undertake the often intense and complex experience of doing their “grief work” (de Vries 2001). This loss dramatically marks the transition to widowhood status and an increasing proportion of our diverse aging population. Widowhood will be used to refer to males and females in this chapter, although the masculine form is also called widowerhood.
Demography of the Widowed
Among the more than 13.7 million currently widowed persons in the United States, almost three-fourths are 65 years of age or older. Moreover, the large majority are women and, given present demographic trends, it appears that this survivor population will increasingly be characterized as female. Nearly half (45%) of all women, but only 15% of all men, aged 65 and older are widowed. Among those aged 85 and older, this disparity is even greater. The average age at which people experience the loss of a spouse is 56 years, but about a half-million widows lose their spouses before age 45 (Himes 2001). Not counted here are the previously widowed who have since remarried. If they were included, the population of living Americans who have ever experienced the death of a marital partner would be much greater.
Over the past several decades, female survivors have greatly surpassed their male counterparts by a widening margin and now represent about 80% of the currently widowed population. In 1940, there were twice as many widows as widowers. Fifty years later, the ratio of widows to widowers had climbed to more than 4 to 1. Several factors help account for this disparity (Berardo 1995; Berardo and Berardo 2000) First, women generally live longer than men. Because their death rate is lower than men’s, larger numbers of women survive into advanced years. Second, wives are usually younger than their husbands, and that increases their chances of outliving their spouses. Third, remarriage rates are significantly lower for widows. Therefore, although many men exit widower status by marrying again, comparatively fewer women do so, thereby adding to the surplus of female survivors, most of whom will spend about 20 years of their lives in that status.
Through advances in medical technology, widespread sanitation and health programs, and improved living conditions, the average life expectancy has been extended. In the process, the probability of dying prior to midlife has greatly diminished, and widowhood has for the most part been postponed to the later stages of the life cycle. At the turn of the 20th century, about one in 25 persons was 65 years of age or older, compared with 1 in 9 at the end of the 20th century. The gains in longevity have been more rapid for women than for men; hence, the growing proportion of elderly women in the population accents their more striking overall rates of widowhood. Because there is little chance that the mortality differences between genders will be reversed anytime soon, the excess of women at the upper ages will continue to increase, and the older population will be composed of a larger proportion of widows. Aware of these trends, researchers have focused their attention primarily on the conditions surrounding female survivors.
Bereavement and the Adaptation Process
An illness can drag on over a great length of time, and sometimes a person has been functionally dead for months before physical death occurs. In such circumstances, the bereaved begin the grief process before the person actually dies, rehearsing the role of survivor, imagining what their life will be once this significant other is finally gone. This initial stage of doing one’s grief work has been labeled anticipatory grief.
Anticipatory grief encompasses several processes, ranging from initial mourning to psychosocial reorganization, that reflect responses to the awareness of the impending death and the recognition of associated losses (Zilberfein 1999). For some, the experience of anticipatory grief itself may be traumatic. It can be as intense as that following the actual death of a loved one and can induce a wide range of emotions, such as depression, helplessness, anger, guilt, denial, confusion, rage, anxiety, and fear. The process can also affect the family bereavement experience following the demise of a member. It may lead some people to feel more in control of the situation and to regard it as an opportunity to prepare for the coming loss and to say good-bye to their loved one in a special way. Others, however, may respond to anticipatory grief by detaching themselves from the experience or from the dying person in an attempt to avoid the pain of grief.
Studies of whether anticipatory grief, or forewarning, of the pending death of a spouse contributes to bereavement adjustment have yielded conflicting results (Roach and Kitson 1989). Some suggest that the experience is important because it allows the survivor to begin the process of role redefinition prior to the death, whereas unanticipated death produces more severe grief reactions. Those who are confronted with the unexpected deaths of their marital partners report more somatic problems and longer adjustment periods than those who anticipated the loss.
Anticipatory role rehearsal does not consistently produce smoother or more positive adjustment among the bereaved. Nevertheless, forewarning of the impending demise of another is generally viewed as useful for future adjustment. Thoughts of what life will be like once the loved one is gone, however, may bring some guilt. The effects of such preparation vary with the age of the person, whether death occurs as an on-time versus off-time event, and other factors. In sum, the coping strategies of survivors vary with the timing and mode of death, as well as the history of family dynamics, all of which can influence the bereavement outcome.
Two other factors—namely, stigma and deprivation—play a part in determining our reaction to grief (Parkes 1988). Stigma refers to the change in attitudes that takes place in society when a person dies. The widow discovers that people who were previously friendly and approachable become embarrassed and strained in her presence. Expressions of sympathy often sound insincere and offers of help are often not fulfilled. Only those who share the grief or have themselves suffered a major loss may remain available to provide assistance and support. Deprivation implies the absence of a necessary person or thing as opposed to loss of that person or thing. A bereaved person reacts to both loss and deprivation. Grief is the reaction to loss; loneliness is the reaction to deprivation. Deprivation means the absence of those essential social and psychological needs that were previously met by the former partner. The sense of loss continues as long as the feeling of deprivation continues. It usually ends when the survivor finds alterative sources for meeting his or her needs.
Widowhood and Family
Much of the stress of widowhood derives from the loss of support of the deceased from the family system. This form of family disruption requires the development of alternative patterns of behavior. Such adjustments are essential for sustaining personal and familial equilibrium, as well as for maintaining satisfactory relations with kin and with the community. Widowhood (or widowerhood) necessitates a reintegration of roles suitable to a new status. In other words, death precipitates a reorganization of the family as a social system. Roles must be reassigned, status positions shifted, values reoriented, and personal and family time restructured. Families exhibit considerable diversity in their attempts to accomplish these sometimes painful transitions.
The potential for role strains and interpersonal conflicts becomes evident as the bereft work their way through this process. In the case of an older bereaved spouse, in particular, loneliness and difficulties associated with the tasks of daily living are among the most common and trying adjustments encountered. Survivors often report that partner loss has its primary deleterious effects through the daily strains and hassles with which they are associated, such as doing the laundry or paying bills. They face mundane daily tasks without the assistance of the deceased, and repetitions of those tasks serve as reminders of what has been lost and what is missing. Expressions of stress, distress, and depression are the manifestations of these reminders (Lehman et al. 1999).
Although the widowed encounter some common problems, it is difficult to specify a normative course of adjustment. In many modern societies, this adaptive process typically proceeds with few guidelines or even ambiguous signals from the culture as to how to act. In this regard, the role of the widowed person has been described as vague and relatively undefined, inasmuch as it lacks clearly specified norms or prescriptions for appropriate behavior. This lack of a normative course of adjustment reflects the diversity of widows and widowers in terms of social and psychological characteristics. In addition, spousal loss evokes a broad spectrum of emotional and behavioral responses from the bereaved, depending on factors such as the nature of the marital relationship and the timing and circumstance under which death occurred. For example, a wife whose husband was killed on the battlefield, in an automobile accident, or in a robbery will respond differently than if he had committed suicide or suffered a long terminal illness. Many other types of such antecedent conditions affect the reactions and coping strategies of survivors. In American society, for instance, a young wife whose life is suddenly taken is mourned differently from a much older married woman who succumbs after a lengthy illness. As a result of such factors, as well as coping mechanisms at the biological and even existential levels, responses to bereavement often show substantial variation.
Bereavement and Developmental Stages
The degree of adjustment encountered by widowed people in the transition to their new status varies by developmental stages. The death of a mate in young marriages is relatively uncommon. Nevertheless, when it does occur, it is apt to make bereavement and the survivor role much more difficult to accommodate than in later life. In most instances, there is a lack of fit with other couples at the same stage of the life cycle and a relative absence of models from the same cohort undergoing this experience (Walsh and McGoldrick 1991). Typically, there has been little or no emotional preparation for the shock and isolation of early widowhood. Being suddenly left alone to rear young children, for example, can be extremely trying and at the same time impede the progress of recovery. The immediate financial and caretaking obligations of single parenthood can interfere with the tasks of mourning (Levinson 1997). Adult friends and relatives can and often do provide assistance with everyday chores such as cooking and housecleaning. Bereaved husbands, generally speaking, are more apt to receive these kinds of practical supports than bereaved wives. On the other hand, wives are likely to have a more extensive range of intimate family and friendship relationships that help to facilitate their emotional grief work.
Older people adapt more readily to widowhood because losing a spouse at advanced ages is more the norm and often anticipated, thus making acceptance of the loss somewhat easier. Research on surviving spouses over age 65 revealed that those who were more dependent on their spouses show higher levels of anxiety than those who were not (Carr et al. 2001). Generally, the distress associated with conjugal bereavement diminishes over time. This is not a simple, linear process, however,; the emotional and psychological traumas of grief and mourning may sporadically reappear long after the spouse has died.
Extreme grief behavior among some older people may come from having to deal with a succession of bereavements, sometimes in overlapping time frames, which may interfere with the completion of the mourning process. The successive demise of friends and loved ones at older ages sometimes occur at the same time the bereft husband or wife is experiencing various personal, physical, mental, social, and economic losses. Hence some find they are unable to absorb more losses than they can accommodate. Psychologists have suggested that many of the negative behaviors we associate with old age are the result of this bereavement overload. Having to deal with several losses within a relatively short period can be overwhelming. Under such conditions, it becomes increasingly difficult to respond fully to new deaths while still being emotionally involved with old deaths.
When grief cannot be adequately handled by the psychological structure, it may find an outlet in physical and mental symptoms, including a preoccupation with bodily functions, physical discomfort, increasing irritability and feelings of bitterness and hostility, a distrust of others, and insufficient energy to engage in new activities or relationships. The overload of negative thoughts and feelings resulting from unreconciled losses can impair the adjustment process and delay a return to a more normal life.
Unresolved grief is often associated with ambiguous loss (Boss 1999). This type of loss includes a range of situations in which an uncertain loss has the effect of freezing the grief process and thereby preventing its completion. For some, an ambiguous loss in a personal relationship can be more stressful than that faced with an ordinary, clear-cut loss because of the lack of closure—survivors don’t know for sure if the loved one is dead or alive, dying or recovering, absent or present. Wives of husband soldiers missing in action know ambiguous loss all too well. The uncertainty inherent in such situations can lead to considerable distress and impede the recovery process. The destruction of the World Trade Center Towers in September of 2001, left many bereft family members not only traumatized but also faced with the stress of uncertainty over the fate of missing relatives, friends, or coworkers. For some, verification as to whether the victims are alive or dead will never come because their remains had not been recovered or identified. Under such circumstances, acceptance of the finality of the death of significant others is difficult, the grieving process is interrupted, and gaining closure on their loss is painfully postponed. Many older people experience ambiguous loss when a spouse develops Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. Although they are still married to a living spouse, that person slowly slips away until he or she no longer exists. In a sense, their spouse is both dead and alive, and they are both widowed and married. There are certain commonalties evident in the way people cope with crises, reflecting institutionalized cultural and subcultural values. Family members often deal with these kinds of losses in idiosyncratic fashion, however, sometimes reacting to the crisis situation in ways peculiar to individual members and reflecting the nature and meaning of their relationships of the missing, with each processing their grief work through different time tables.
Gender Differences Among the Widowed
The kin-keeping role often played by wives, and men’s greater likelihood of identifying their spouses as confidants, lead to views of bereaved husbands as socially and emotionally vulnerable (Tower and Kasl 1996). However, although some widows may flourish as a result of being freed of the constraints of married life, many others frequently express various dimensions of loneliness (Lopata 1996). Although the evidence remains equivocal, there is some agreement that men probably suffer more than women in coping with and adapting to the status of being widowed. The event of widowhood is more normative among women. Hence they will likely know many more other females who have experienced this loss to whom they can turn for consolation and help. This means they may be better off than widowers in terms of social support. Widowers’ networks of relationships are not as homogeneous as their female counterparts. Thus what appears as a gender difference may, in fact, be a social support difference (Ferraro 1989, 2001).
It is also possible that social expectations for expressivity favor women when facing a life crisis. If men are not socialized to express loneliness or depression, they may not use their support networks and may permit the accumulation of stress-related outcomes. Both of these may explain the higher mortality risk of men, especially for suicide. In short, expressivity as a cultural norm may predispose women to do more active grief work and thereby avoid some of widowhood’s deleterious effects.
Widower Versus Widow Adaptation
Although comparative knowledge about the experiences of males who have lost their spouses remains insufficient, there have been a few attempts to learn more about their adaptations. The evidence does suggest a somewhat greater vulnerability for widowers (Zick and Smith 1991). Men are less likely to have same-sex widowed friends, more likely to be older and less healthy, have fewer family and social ties, and experience greater difficulty in becoming proficient in domestic roles (Lee et al. 2001). Higher mortality and suicide rates also suggest somewhat greater distress among widowers. It is important to note, however, that husband and wife survivors share many similar bereavement experiences and adjustments. There is much empirical support for the conclusion that although they do manifest some aspects of grief differently, men and women have a good deal in common with respect to loss-related feelings, mental and physical health, and social life (Lund 1989). There is a small but growing literature regarding same-sex widowhood experiences, about which normative data are not yet available. Interestingly, however, the accounts we do have suggest patterns of findings that bear significant similarity to the more traditional literature, at least at this early stage of analysis (de Vries 2001).
Widowhood and Health
In making the transition to widowed status, the bereaved are often confronted with a variety of personal and familial problems. They are not always successful in adapting to these circumstances. This is reflected in the findings that, when compared with married persons, the widowed rather consistently show higher rates of mortality, mental disorders, and suicide. Although it is generally agreed that the bereavement process is stressful, studies of its effect on physical health have yielded inconsistent results. Nevertheless, it appears that people who have lost their mates generally experience poorer health than those who are still married, but the reasons for this remain unclear.
Whether health is seriously affected by the loss of a spouse seems in part to depend on the social context surrounding the loss. Social support, specifically, appears to significantly influence the ability to confront the stress of widowhood. Men appear to have a more difficult time avoiding a subsequent mortality risk following spousal loss, especially during the first 6 months of bereavement. Female survivors, on the other hand, do not generally exhibit a higher mortality risk, but if they do, it is more likely to occur a couple of years after death of a spouse. Widowhood does precipitate a decline in health. This decline is rapid for a year or two and then levels off. The use of medical services appears to remain fairly similar to when a person is married but may increase a year or two after widowhood.
The degree of anticipation associated with the death of a spouse may notably affect health outcomes. For example, there is some indication that declines in health are more likely when the loss of a spouse occurs with a short preparation time. There may, however, be a curvilinear relationship between length of time anticipating the death and morbidity. That is to say, sudden and unexpected loss of a spouse creates health and other problems of adjustment but so may attempting to provide care for a spouse for several years (Ferraro 1989).
In any event, the evidence shows that heightened morbidity risk accompanies the grieving process of widowed people. The vast majority of studies of widowhood do, in fact, show some sort of health decline. This decline is most likely to occur shortly after the death of a spouse. Long-term effects tend to be modest or nonexistent unless there are complicating conditions, such as social isolation. The more isolated survivors are more apt to exhibit enduring signs of health decline.
Age at which widowhood occurs is also an important consideration when assessing health outcomes. Some gerontologists have suggested that stress may be harder on older adults because of a presumed reduction in physiological ability. Remarriage rates are another indicator of how different ages face bereavement. Although younger adults have more opportunities for remarriage, they also desire it much more strongly to reorganize a disorganized life. Older adults are not nearly as interested in remarriage, for they have anticipated the disorganization. The other implication of the findings on age at widowhood is that older adults may be more resilient than is popularly portrayed (Ferraro 1989).
Economic Consequences of Widowhood
Income and financial security play a major role in adjusting to life crises. People often fail to plan for the economic consequences of spousal loss, however. Female survivors have more problems coping with the loss of income than widowers, usually because their incomes were tied to health insurance, retirement, and other benefits that accompanied the husband’s occupation. His demise typically produces a noticeable drop in family income. This may force the widow to sell her home, change jobs, or move elsewhere in attempts to sustain her prior standard of living or simply to make ends meet. Duration of widowhood has been associated with loss of income and increased risk of poverty. Two-fifths of widows fall into poverty at some time during the 5 years following the death of their husbands. Widowers also suffer a decline in economic well-being, albeit to a much lesser degree than their female counterparts (Zick and Smith 1991).
Elderly persons frequently have below-average incomes prior to the death of their marital partner. Once bereaved, their circumstances may worsen, especially if they have been stay-at-home wives who were highly dependent on their husband’s income. They may be unwilling or unable to seek or find employment, and they are likely to face discrimination in the labor market (Morgan 1989). Given their age, they may lack the education or skills required to compete for jobs. The younger widowed are more likely to have lost a spouse suddenly and may thus be unprepared to cope with lowered financial subsistence. Poor adjustment to being widowed, therefore, can often be attributed to socioeconomic deprivation. This is especially apt to be the case among members of disadvantaged racial/ethnic groups, whose recovery may be impeded by discrimination and inequitable social policies that affect their health and financial circumstances (Berardo 2001).
Regardless of the income level, the widowed person faces financial transitions after the death of a spouse. These include dealing with (a) immediate practical concerns, which may take 1 to 2 weeks; (b) financial and legal concerns, which might take 1 week to several months; and (c) settling tax concerns, which may take 1 to 2 years. There are many published guidelines and Web sites that hold useful tips, pitfalls, and checklists for this process.
Widowhood often leads to changes in living arrangements. Reduced income may force surviving spouses to seek more affordable housing. They may also choose to relocate for other reasons, such as future financial and health concerns, a desire to divest of possessions, or to be near kin or friends. Most often, the people living alone are women—usually elderly widows. Isolation and lack of social support can lead to deterioration in physical and mental well-being. Compared with elderly married couples, widows and widowers are much more apt to live in poverty and are less likely to receive medical care when needed.
Widowhood and Divorce
Studies comparing levels of physical and psychological distress among the widowed and the divorced or separated have produced contradictory findings (Kitson et al. 1989). This should not obscure the fact that there are many similarities in adjustment between these two groups. Both experience accompanying disruptions in lifestyle related to altered financial circumstances, shifting networks of social interaction, redefinition of self-concepts, loss of significant emotional attachments, and a decline of psychological well-being. Generally speaking, the many changes that occur as a result of losing a partner leaves those who are widowed or divorced more vulnerable to psychological and physical illness, suicide, accidents, and death compared with those in intact marriages (Sanders 1993). Fortunately, most widows and widowers eventually return to some semblance of their former level of functioning, although some unknown number never fully recovers.
The adjustment experience during widowhood or divorce is often influenced by age. In either situation, spousal loss appears to pose somewhat more difficulty for the younger female. Research suggests that the young and the old bereaved differ in both the intensity of grief and the pattern of grief reactions, especially with respect to adverse health and psychological outcomes within the first 2 years following the demise of the husband. Younger widows experience a different pattern of adjustment than do their older counterparts, in part because they have fewer widowed friends who could help socialize them to their new status and role. Because of their loss, younger survivors are developmentally “out-of-sync” with their cohorts, and this exacerbates their sense of loneliness and need for companionship (Levinson 1997). Their expectations may be different because they have more years ahead and more potentially eligible marital partners in the future than do older widows.
Apparently, children of the widowed differ from those of the divorced as a result of growing up in these single-mother families. Compared with children raised in single-mother families resulting from the father’s death, children reared in single-mother families produced by divorce have significantly lower levels of education, occupational status, and happiness in adulthood. This is partly associated with the finding that divorced single mothers hold lower occupational positions, are more financially stressed, and have a higher rate of participation in the paid labor force (Biblarz and Gottainer 2000).
Both divorced and widowed families experience noticeable declines in their standard of living and income but much more so in the case of divorced mothers. There are significant differences in government support available to the two groups. Widows with dependent children can take advantage of Social Security survivor’s benefits. This program provides each child with a monthly stipend until age 18. The widow can elect to remain home with the children and also collect a monthly benefit. If she decides to enter the paid labor force, her benefit continues until her income surpasses a specific threshold. Regardless of other sources of income, such as savings, pensions, or life insurance, the family can continue to qualify for this government support.
In contrast, divorced mothers and their dependent children have limited access to government support. For decades, the main program on which they could draw benefits was known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). To qualify for funds under that program, the divorced had to exhaust any liquid assets and demonstrate that their standard of living was below the poverty level. Additional restrictions limited the possibility of their using these funds as a supplement to income they earned from labor force participation. The AFDC program was eventually replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which similarly imposed restraints that entitled divorced families to a lower level of socioeconomic support compared with widowed families. This disparity may be due in part to the belief that divorced parents ought to be held responsible for providing for their children (Biblarz and Gottainer 2000).
Widowhood and Remarriage
The probability for remarriage is significantly less for widows than widowers, especially at older ages. Although a majority of older female survivors retain their interest in and attraction to men in terms of companionship, comparatively fewer desire to reenter the marriage market (Talbott 1998). Some may feel they are committing psychological bigamy and therefore reject remarriage as an option (DiGiulio 1989). Widows also remarry less frequently than their male counterparts because of the relative lack of eligible partners. Some are discouraged by double-standard cultural norms that degrade the sexuality of older women or disapprove of their establishing intimate or permanent relationships with younger men.
Sometimes the opposition or disapproval of older children, concerned with inheritance issues, may pose a barrier to remarriage for the widowed. In other instances, a lengthy period performing the caretaker role for a terminally ill spouse may lead the widowed to avoid committing to another marriage out of fear of having to bear that heavy responsibility again. Many in fact are able to develop and value a new and independent identity following the loss of their spouse, and this also may lead to a declining interest in remarriage (Talbott 1998).
Many of the widowed report ongoing conversations with the deceased, sort of “checking in” with them, and wondering what they would think or do in a particular situation (de Vries 2001). They often dream of the deceased and believe that they are watching over the activities of the bereft. Sometimes survivors maintain, at least initially, a sort of cognitive intimacy with the departed (Troll 2001). The continuation of strong feelings of attachment to the deceased probably has positive effects in the short term but potentially negative consequences over time. Some widows, more frequently found among those of lower socioeconomic status, exhibit a tendency to “sanctify” their deceased husbands, to keep their connections to them, and to build up their late husband’s image. This makes it difficult to find a new partner who can favorably compare with the idealized image of the deceased (Lopata 1996).
Grief counselors have noted that sometimes, in their attempts to be accepted and to appear recovered, survivors narrowly focus only on positive memories rather than on the total historical experiences with the deceased. This is a form of incomplete grief and can lead to “enshrinement,” which can include, among other things, obsessively building memorials to the person who died. Illustrative here would be the person who insists on keeping in view the many objects that represent the deceased (James and Friedman 1998).
In this process, past images of interactions with the departed member are mentally re-created, reenacted, and reexamined. There is a tendency to recall the positive attributes of the deceased and to minimize or even repress the negative characteristics. This process of selective memory eventually results in a highly idealized and distorted conception of the dead. Sanctification can become problematic when the surviving spouse attempts to establish new relationships or seeks to remarry. Wives, for example, may idealize their former marriages in such a manner that they are rendered incapable of entering a second union. Such emotional involvement with the deceased must be resolved if the survivor is to make a satisfactory adjustment to his or her loss.
The opposite of enshrinement has been labeled “bedevilment” (James and Friedman 1998). Here the bereft partner expresses a long list of complaints, castigating the former spouse for a lifetime of mistreatment and unhappiness, and is unwilling to let go of disappointments and anger. Instead, he or she clings to the negatives just as the sanctifier adheres to the positives. Neither addresses the entire relationship in a realistic and balanced perspective. It is difficult to complete the mourning and recovery process without examining and accepting everything about the relationship, including its downside.
Worldwide evidence shows a broad range of responses to widowhood. Cross-cultural variations among marital survivors reflect the changing cultural values of particular societies. For example, in the past, Hindu widows were treated harshly in the highly patriarchal society of India. Loss of a husband meant a loss of status, economic dependency, and social isolation. Remarriage was not encouraged. Although still far from receiving equitable treatment compared with widowers, their situation has gradually improved over time. In Israel, another strongly religious and patriarchal society, war widows are given greater recognition and preferential benefits compared with their civilian counterparts. Remarriage is not discouraged, as it was in India. In an earlier agriculturally based Korean society, becoming a widow resulted in lowered status and a general prohibition against remarriage. Under the influences of growing modernization, including urbanization and industrialization, the cultural status of widows improved, especially for those who moved to the cities (Lopata 1996). Widows in other parts of the world that are undergoing modernization also find that such conditions allow them a more flexible role compared with the past. It is difficult, however, to make international comparisons on this topic. Data gathered by the United Nations Statistics Division (http://unstats.un.org/unsd) during the 1990s show considerable variation in the widowed population both within and between countries and regions of the world. Unfortunately, the rates of survivorship available are not systematically calculated in terms of age categories and time periods.
Social Support and the Recovery Process
Although social support is presumed to play an important role in bereavement outcomes and serve as a buffer for stressful life events, the research findings are inconclusive or equivocal (Van Baarsen 2002). Nevertheless, there is evidence that the extent to which members of the social network provide various types of assistance to the bereaved is important to the pattern of recovery and adaptation. Available confidants and access to self-help groups to assist with emotional management can help counter loneliness and promote the survivor’s reintegration into society (Dykstra 1995). For people confronting the loss of a spouse, the strength of their social ties can play a critical role, particularly when they are reinforced by homogeneity among network members. The stability of these networks and the physical and emotional support they provide, especially during the first year of bereavement, can have positive effects contributing to successful survivor adaptability (Ferraro 1989).
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has published guides for widowed persons as well as other useful materials in print and Web site format (www.aarp.org). Social resources of finances and education have been found to be particularly influential in countering the stresses associated with the death of a spouse. Social status makes a difference in terms of recovery. Being higher up on the socioeconomic ladder has repeatedly been found to offer advantages: better health, larger social networks, and more coping resources. More extensive intervention efforts, therefore, need to be directed toward the socioeconomically less fortunate among the widowed.
Community programs that provide education, counseling, and financial services can facilitate the efforts of the widowed and their families to restructure their lives. To be most effective, services and intervention programs must be actively introduced early in the bereavement process; for the bereft, this period tends to be the most difficult and can affect later recovery outcomes. It is also important that the programs and services remain available to the survivors well beyond the bereavement period (Lund 1989).
Much of the variability in bereavement response can be attributed to intrapersonal resources that make coping easier. For example, it has been found that a sense of optimism and meaning in life is integral to how well the widowed adapt to their bereavement (Caserta and Lund 1993). Other major factors that strongly influence the degree of difficulty experienced by widowed individuals include self-confidence, that is, the belief that one will be able to manage the situation; self-efficacy, derived from coping with previous life transitions; and strong self-esteem. Widows and widowers differ with respect to self-efficacy beliefs in various domains of their interpersonal, social, emotional, and physical functioning. Widows seem to benefit most by feelings of self-efficacy in areas of interpersonal relations, emotional stability, and spiritual health. In contrast, widowers gained by virtue of feeling competent in areas of instrumental activity, financial security, and physical health. Such differences between male and female survivors appear to be related to their perceptions of their quality of life, life satisfactions, and self-esteem (Fry 2001). Feelings of self-efficacy can serve to insulate one from debilitating grief and contribute to a successful recovery from loss (Brissette, Scheier, and Carver 2002). Our knowledge about the recovery process is still evolving. Recovering from a significant emotional loss is a difficult task. This is especially true for older persons who, having spent many years in intimate association with a spouse, now have to deal with his or her death. Most people are ill prepared to manage the complex emotions of grief and bereavement but are sometimes able to exert considerable control over how they perceive and respond to those emotions. Recovery from loss is usually achieved by a series of small steps and choices made by the survivor (James and Friedman 1998). Some individuals who suffer loss may never completely return to their preloss state. The ultimate goal is to eventually come to terms with the many changes triggered by the loss of a spouse, to recover meaning and a sense of control regarding one’s life, and then successfully integrate oneself into a new social context or identity (Miller and Omarzu 1998).
Emotional and behavioral responses to spousal loss reflect each survivor’s idiosyncratic circumstances and contingencies. Hence widows and widowers exhibit considerable variation in concluding their grief work. Some are able to do so within months, whereas others may take years to complete the process and recover from life without their mate. A small minority never gets over the trauma of the loss. With assistance and meaningful support, however, the majority of the widowed are capable of adapting to their new circumstances, eventually returning to an ordinary level of functioning, managing their everyday affairs, and striving to maintain a sense of purpose and a life of personal satisfaction.