Widowhood as a Major Role in Life

Widowhood as a Major Role in Life

Like retirement, widowhood and widowerhood are other societal roles associated with later life. The death of a spouse results in an involuntary change in social rules. While the death of any family member is tragic, the death of a longtime spouse is particularly devastating. Along with grieving the loss of the individual, the spouse is dealing with the loss of the role and identity of being a spouse and part of a couple.


Deborah Kestin Van Den Hoonaard analyzed 10 autobiographical accounts of widowhood, including the well-known Widowby Lynne Caine (Van Den Hoonaard, 2000). Hoonaard writes, "the ten authors focus on their experience as transformation, rather than one of recovery or adjustment. Their stories give us a sense of how their changing relationships and circumstances have effected that transformation by stripping them of their identity and forcing them to see themselves differently." Van Deen Hoonaard calls this identity foreclosure, meaning that the widows no longer have the social resources to hang on to their identity. Some of the widows' comments are:

  • "After Martin died, I learned that my identity had been derived from him. I did not know who I was."
  • "My life was focused to his and without him, the focus flickered out like a burnt match."
  • "Darling, I'm half living without you; half of me is dead."

While adjustment to the loss of a husband creates identity problems for many windows, Robert Atchley points out that "some women are glad their husbands have passed away. For example, a large percentage of elder abuse consists of long-standing spouse abuse. Not all marriages are idyllic. Not all wives love their husbands. For some wives the wife role is not central to identity. In addition, some women carry their spouse identity into widowhood. I've interview many women who still get satisfaction from being able to look back over their married life and see that they were good wives" (Atchley, 2004).



While many older women gain their identity from their husbands and the family that they have created together, many men also experience difficulty when they lose a wife. Many men assume that they will die first and have not prepared themselves to be the survivor. Again, the loss of identity as a couple can result in identity foreclosure. Perhaps this is why men tend to remarry more often than women. Not only are there more potential spouses available for men than for women, but men also look to remarriage as a way to re frame their identities rather than adjust to being single.

At the same time, the proportion of widowers who don't remarry increases with age, so men who are widowed at advanced age are often bereft of their major caregiver as well as their main confidant and companion. For many men, their wife was their closest friend, and their social networks greatly diminish after her death.

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved. www.csa.us