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Report: Older Widows Building New Lives


Te Widowed Self by Dr. Deborah Kestin van den Hoonaard

According to a recent study, widowhood is not just about the loss of a spouse but the changes it initiates in all areas of a woman’s life, including relationships, money, and the strength of the human spirit.

Dr. Deborah Kestin van den Hoonaard, a sociologist at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, interviewed 27 women in their own homes. Half lived in urban and half in rural New Brunswick. Participants were married an average of 35 years, with individual marriages lasting from five to 50 years. The women ranged in age from 53 to 87. Van den Hoonaard published the findings in The Widowed Self: The Older Woman’s Journey Through Widowhood (Wilfrid Laurier University Press).

Relationships with children

The women had to learn new ways of interacting with their children after their husbands died.

Some children reacted to their father’s death by trying to protect their mother. They worried about their mother’s ability to make decisions or that she would run out of money. The women had to train their children to give them the space they needed.

As with previous studies, this study found adult children’s behaviour during their father’s illness affected long-term relationships with their mother, particularly when the illness extended over a long period.

"Lydia’s" daughter, for example, maintained close contact with her mother, although she lived in another province. "I was very fortunate, really, because my daughter came down. She was here when her father died," Lydia said. "Then she had to go back for a week . . . but then she came back. Then I went to her home for a couple of weeks."

"Sylvia", whose children also lived far away, added, "The real strong one was my older son. Our relationship’s better, definitely. I admire him and appreciate him. When I needed him, he was right there. They drove up almost immediately."

Relations with stepchildren were particularly hard hit when a husband died, the study found. Some children rejected their mothers even when the children seemed to have had good relationships with their parents during the father’s lifetime.

But overall, women reported close relationships with their children, particularly their daughters.

Relationships with men

According to the study, widows’ relationships with men were complicated. Some women felt uncomfortable going out with men. Others feared friendly overtures would be misinterpreted as invitations to romance.

The majority of the women did not want to remarry. The widows commonly believed they had had a good marriage, and they thought it unlikely they would be lucky again. Women who had scheduled life around their husbands the first time round did not want to repeat the pattern. Other women continued to feel deep attachment to their husband.

Despite not wanting to remarry, the widows welcomed male company, particularly opportunities for conversation and shared outings.

Relationship with money

On the upside, most of the women had experience handling money. On the downside, most of the women’s incomes were cut in half when their husbands died.

Many worried about making ends meet. Some took in borders. Others shopped at less expensive stores. The few women who had money hired financial advisors.

Relationship with community

Four of the women in the study attended an ongoing support group for widows. Others had no interest in such a group. "I just figured I don’t need it," said "Marion".

Participants belonged to several social organizations. The War Brides proved a "godsend", for three of the women. As Lydia said, "We’re all from England and we can talk about our experiences and what we went through. We have some great jam sessions."

Some women participated in the city’s recreation activities. Others enjoyed events at the Art Gallery. And one woman was very active in the Order of the Eastern Star.

For some women, their personal faith and church-related activities proved a source of strength. However, this was less true, when women were new to the area. Florence was invited to attend the church choir in her new community, which she did. But, according to Florence, "It didn’t help in the way I had hoped it would because they were clannish and didn’t talk to you."

Overall, the research suggests women, who move to rural areas late in life, women who are not joiners, and women with uncommon interests may experience greater difficulty in building a new life.

Strength of the human spirit

Most importantly, the transition from "wife to widow" is not only a story of loss but also of gain. The women discovered an unexpected sense of accomplishment in learning to live alone. As their confidence grew, they learned to manage their money, maintain their homes and make new friends. "These women have the tools to build new lives and to have a sense of accomplishment in the building," van den Hoonaard said.