Journal of Gerontological Nursing

Emerging From the Chrysalis: Older Widows in Transition

Mary Adlersberg, RN, MSN; Sally Thorne, RN, MSN

Abstract

The vast quantity of literature on older widows in our society convincingly portrays widowhood as an experience fraught with poverty, ill health, loneliness, grief, and readjustment.1'4 We know that older widows greatly outnumber older widowers, widowed women are poorer and less healthy than their married counterparts, older widowed women are unlikely to remarry, and most women will become widows at some point during their lifetime.5 Recently, numerous studies have examined the period of readjustment from wifehood to widowhood, articulating the nature of associated losses to encourage health-care professionals to find ways to ease the transition.6"12 As a result of such inquiry, intervention strategies such as bereavement work, financial counseling, support network development, and household management skills acquisition have received considerable attention.13 What has rarely been discussed, however, is the reality that widowhood is not always an unwelcome transition. Embedded in the literature is the assumption that all marriages are happy, all widows grieve for their husbands, and that married life is preferable to being unmarried.11

CLINICAL PERSPECTIVES

Rarely does the literature on widowhood consider the situation of the woman for whom widowhood has a very different meaning than the norm. Recent clinical experience assessing the long-term care needs of older widows in the community alerted one of the authors to the unanticipated extent of this reality. On interviewing several hundred widows per year, it became evident that many experienced widowhood in a way for which the literature had not accounted.

The widows encountered in this capacity tended to live independently and alone in modest housing in a working class district of a large metropolitan area. At the time of contact, the initial bereavement period was usually long past; therefore, they had all made adjustments into the role of widow. The clinical encounters took place to identify any instrumental or supportive services needed to maintain independent living in their own homes. To clarify which services might be required, their perceptions of the transition from wife to widow were routinely assessed.

In many cases, the accounts of their experiences contrasted sharply with the stereotypical impression of widowhood that predominates the literature. Further, the similarities among their accounts suggested that this alternative experience may be sufficiently common that health-care professionals should recognize and understand it. This discussion, therefore, describes some of the common themes in the stories of some women for whom widowhood has had a rather different meaning than one might anticipate.

THE MEANING OF MARRIAGE

For most of these women, marriage was considered a norm and an unquestioned obligation of womanhood. When they talked about their marriage, many described it in rather neutral and nondescript terms. However, when asked about their relationships with their husbands, the women were animated and explicit. An initial claim that a widow missed her husband would often be followed by a lengthy and vivid description of what she did not miss about him. Many of the women did not miss the heavy burden of caretaking of a sick and demanding spouse. Others did not miss handling alcoholic rages. Still others talked of not missing the emotional and physical abuse inflicted on them by their spouses. As they elaborated on specific events that characterized their marriages, many described a lifetime of having to consider the needs of their spouse before their own and of having little control over the major decisions in their lives.

RECOVERING IDENTITY

In addition, even women who had enjoyed happier relationships with their husbands admitted that the transition to widowhood had forced them to reconsider their own world view to determine the extent to which it represented their own opinion or the one…

The vast quantity of literature on older widows in our society convincingly portrays widowhood as an experience fraught with poverty, ill health, loneliness, grief, and readjustment.1'4 We know that older widows greatly outnumber older widowers, widowed women are poorer and less healthy than their married counterparts, older widowed women are unlikely to remarry, and most women will become widows at some point during their lifetime.5 Recently, numerous studies have examined the period of readjustment from wifehood to widowhood, articulating the nature of associated losses to encourage health-care professionals to find ways to ease the transition.6"12 As a result of such inquiry, intervention strategies such as bereavement work, financial counseling, support network development, and household management skills acquisition have received considerable attention.13 What has rarely been discussed, however, is the reality that widowhood is not always an unwelcome transition. Embedded in the literature is the assumption that all marriages are happy, all widows grieve for their husbands, and that married life is preferable to being unmarried.11

CLINICAL PERSPECTIVES

Rarely does the literature on widowhood consider the situation of the woman for whom widowhood has a very different meaning than the norm. Recent clinical experience assessing the long-term care needs of older widows in the community alerted one of the authors to the unanticipated extent of this reality. On interviewing several hundred widows per year, it became evident that many experienced widowhood in a way for which the literature had not accounted.

The widows encountered in this capacity tended to live independently and alone in modest housing in a working class district of a large metropolitan area. At the time of contact, the initial bereavement period was usually long past; therefore, they had all made adjustments into the role of widow. The clinical encounters took place to identify any instrumental or supportive services needed to maintain independent living in their own homes. To clarify which services might be required, their perceptions of the transition from wife to widow were routinely assessed.

In many cases, the accounts of their experiences contrasted sharply with the stereotypical impression of widowhood that predominates the literature. Further, the similarities among their accounts suggested that this alternative experience may be sufficiently common that health-care professionals should recognize and understand it. This discussion, therefore, describes some of the common themes in the stories of some women for whom widowhood has had a rather different meaning than one might anticipate.

THE MEANING OF MARRIAGE

For most of these women, marriage was considered a norm and an unquestioned obligation of womanhood. When they talked about their marriage, many described it in rather neutral and nondescript terms. However, when asked about their relationships with their husbands, the women were animated and explicit. An initial claim that a widow missed her husband would often be followed by a lengthy and vivid description of what she did not miss about him. Many of the women did not miss the heavy burden of caretaking of a sick and demanding spouse. Others did not miss handling alcoholic rages. Still others talked of not missing the emotional and physical abuse inflicted on them by their spouses. As they elaborated on specific events that characterized their marriages, many described a lifetime of having to consider the needs of their spouse before their own and of having little control over the major decisions in their lives.

RECOVERING IDENTITY

In addition, even women who had enjoyed happier relationships with their husbands admitted that the transition to widowhood had forced them to reconsider their own world view to determine the extent to which it represented their own opinion or the one they had adopted with marriage. A theme that was often repeated by the women was the difficulty encountered in separating their deceased husbands' world views from their own. In recognizing that they had lived with, but not necessarily shared, their husbands' attitudes and opinions, the women found themselves challenged to rethink their pasts and to try to rediscover who they were and what they believed prior to their marriages. This process of reflection and reconsideration was a powerful experience in the transition from being a wife to creating a new identity.

A few case examples illustrate the variety of experiences typifying this reflective process. One woman recalled accepting invitations to play cards with friends early in her widowhood. Playing cards was an activity that she had previously enjoyed with her husband and their mutual friends. After attending a few of these events, she found herself feeling uncomfortable and out of place. She said she felt controlled by others. She began to realize that she actually disliked playing cards, and recalled arguments early in her marriage in which she had resisted this type of social activity. This insight led her to reconsider the activities in which she wanted to participate; she remembered and renewed an interest in singing. However, given her age and circumstances, she no longer knew how to go about finding an appropriate choir that might accept her.

Another woman had lived with an alcoholic and abusive husband her entire married life. She had accepted this arrangement as her lot in life and considered herself reasonably happy. However, since her husband's death, she had started to take an active interest in the issue of alcoholism. She watched television programs, read books and articles about it, and began to realize that it was a social problem of major proportions. This insight made her feel "stupid" and resentful of the type of marriage she had endured. She was angry that she had not realized how distorted her husband's attitudes had been. Her way of making peace with herself for her lack of awareness was to convince her children to attend support groups for adult children of alcoholics.

As the women re-examined their beliefs, they began to realize that they had set aside their own beliefs on the assumption that wives should do this for the salce of their families. However, as they considered the nature of the beliefs in hindsight, they no longer saw them as benefiting their families, but rather as benefiting their husbands. Thus, the women felt duped into lifestyles and belief systems that were not their own for no reason other than their husbands' convenience.

As these examples illustrate, the transition into widowhood allowed these women to think back to a time before they married and to consider who they would be had they not married these particular men. For example, one woman had married a man who did not believe in dancing. She, however, had fantasized about being a dancer. In reconstructing her life as a widow, this woman had to rebuild a sense of confidence that she could dance and free herself of the immoral image of dancing. She had to find places where seniors' dances took place and imagine herself dancing in the arms of a stranger. Furthermore, she had to figure out how to attend dances without looking as if she was interested in romantic involvement, because she had decided tha marriage was a stage she had pro gressed beyond.

For many women, rediscovering their own desires and aspirations addet new frustrations to the experience o widowhood. For example, one womai had enjoyed volunteer work before sht was married. Her husband had nc allowed her to continue it, so she relue tantly had given it up. Now that she wa free to resume such activities, thi woman was anxious about whether any one would want her. She did not know how to connect with volunteer services and she was not certain that she ha( skills that would be of use to anyone Thus, her insight added insecurity ant frustration to her life. Fortunately, oi recommendation to a local seniors wellness center, this woman becamt. one of their most active and committee volunteers.

ANALYZING THEIR ROLES AS WOMEN

Even when women were able to actu-i alize the self they had relinquished or entering marriage, many felt angerec and frustrated by their willingness tc give it up for so long. For many, this intense soul searching led to first-timt; analysis of the roles of women in society Many acknowledged having discussec such ideas with other widowed friends. Interestingly, they often reported thai they had never even thought such things, let alone discussed them with friends, during their married years.

This feminist consciousness-raising! was apparent in a surprising proportion of the widows interviewed. Although many would never have aligned them selves with a feminist, let alone any political, perspective, their comments reflected a new world view based on the realization of the implications of wifehood as a social role. In hindsight; they saw themselves as having been caught in the tide of expected behavior and they believed they had been misled into submerging their identities so as to perform their assigned roles. Because of these insights, many women were adamant that they would never remarry under any circumstances. As one woman remarked, "There are many widowers out there looking for someone to take care of them. No, not me. I'd rather stay home."

EMBITTERMENT VERSUS ACTIVISM

With an altered consciousness about the implications that the role of wife had played in their lives, the widows seemed to adopt one of two general attitudes: some became embittered and cynical; others were able to turn their insights into actions. Many women had found meaning in community work or social involvement; a surprising number had aligned themselves with political causes. In many cases, they had used their own resources to initiate contacts with local groups and activities; in other instances, friends and health-care professionals provided suggestions that led to such involvements. Thus, their newly acquired femiinist consciousness forced them out of their chrysalis. For some of the women, it triggered a metamorphosis into a new activism and involvement.

DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS

That this type of experience is rarely mentioned in the literature is probably a product of several related factors. First, widowhood is often studied during the first year of bereavement. The type of transition described here seems likely to be experienced after the initial upheaval has subsided. Secondly, many women obviously do experience widowhood as an entirely negative phenomenon. Thus, those who do not may well become lost among the generalizations of large population samples. Thirdly, women may be reluctant to report relief or satisfaction with the role of widowhood. After all, their socialization has not taught them that such responses are acceptable. It is therefore easy to interpret the transformation of these women as a miracle of coping rather than an artifact of their marital dynamics.

Because nurses generally do not recognize that widowhood may, in fact, represent a relief, a release, and an opportunity for many women, they fail to take this aspect of the experience into account when planning supportive community and health programs targeting widows. By portraying widows as a vulnerable, impotent, and needy population group, nursing may be perpetuating the difficulties some of these women face in resuming active roles in society. 14 Programming that capitalizes on their strengths and promotes a more positive public image would also serve to inform widows about the possibilities before them as they venture back into the world. For example, there is considerable evidence that involvements such as volunteer work15 and self-help groups16,17 are especially helpful to widows. Certainly, widows need help in identifying who it is they wish to be now that they are no longer wives. Further, they may need specific instrumental assistance to make the contacts and develop the skills toward involvement in the activities they wish to pursue.

In individual cases, strategic interventions have included such approaches as teaching asserti veness skills, discussing modern dating expectations, creating links with advocacy and political action groups, and instilling the confidence to tackle these challenges with enthusiasm. Because some of these widows may not seem quite as distressed as their sisters, for whom bereavement is an unmitigated disaster, their needs may be largely ignored by our existing services. In failing to recognize and capitalize on the contributions widows could make if the appropriate roles were available to them, we may be depriving ourselves of a highly valuable community resource.

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10.3928/0098-9134-19900101-03

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