In This Session:

Stories about Widowhood -
Read about the stories of Bonnie, Shellie, Teresa and Michael, and follow their journeys through the loss of a partner to a new identity.

The Social Security Administration projects that by 2010, nearly 1,050,000 Americans will lose spouses each year, and by 2030 that number is expected to  grow to more than 1.5 million. Those left behind face redefining their lives to deal in new ways with family and friends, as well as unresolved feelings and regrets left over from marriage. As many widowed Americans are finding, building a new life or finding new meaning sometimes requires just taking another approach to your “old” life.

About the Author:

Myra Christopher is President and CEO of Midwest Bioethics Center (MBC) in Kansas City, Missouri. Ms. Christopher is National Program Director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's national program, Community-State Partnerships to Improve End-of-Life Care.


Bereaved partners left with hardest question: Who am I now?

By Myra Christopher

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.
Then they stay dead.

— “Distressed Haiku,” written by Donald Hall shortly after the death of his wife, poet Jane Kenyon.

No one who knew Bonnie and Bud Story was surprised when, after Bud was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1992, Bonnie quit teaching and dropped everything to devote all of her energy to her husband’s care. After all, she had taken care of Bud most of her life.
Their grandfathers had gone to business school together and had been friendly competitors in the small town of Charleston, Mo. Their mothers had been pregnant at the same time and had joked about which of them would be born first. Bonnie won, by four days.
They napped in the same crib. Growing up, they played together and were in the same classes. They dated off and on in high school and married before they finished college, settling in Charleston and raising crops and four children.
For the 18 months that Bud fought for his life, Bonnie did what everyone knew she would. Whether at home, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Mo., or at an alternative cancer treatment clinic in Mexico, she knew exactly how to be Mrs. Albert Loebe Story Jr. She learned quickly how to be a caregiver and an advocate for her husband.
After Bud died, she didn’t take to her next role quite so quickly.
“For a whole year all I wanted to do was sleep and stare at the television,” Bonnie said. “I don’t even like television. I was numb. I just didn’t know what to do.
“I was so busy searching for something — what to do, where to go. For the first time in my life I felt completely alone and without direction — rudderless.”
Members of their close-knit community were stunned when Bonnie not only didn’t go back to teaching after Bud died, but picked up and moved from Charleston. First she moved to Cape Girardeau, Mo., 40 miles away, and then to Martha’s Vineyard to work in a seaside gift shop. “It was an attempt to leave my hurt behind,” she said.
It turned out that when she lost Bud, Bonnie had lost many of her friends, too. Couples they had been friends with for years stopped calling, she said. She thought people wanted to avoid her.
“It was like my pain was too much for them,” she said, “or that maybe it was contagious.” In her new surroundings, Bonnie found new friends — “divorcees and other women I would never have been friends with before.”
Bonnie’s experience isn’t out of the ordinary for the 1 million Americans who are widowed each year — and those numbers are growing fast, fueled by the ubiquitous Baby Boomers. The Social Security Administration projects that by 2010, nearly 1,050,000 Americans will lose spouses each year, and by 2030 that number is expected to grow to more than 1.5 million. And these figures don’t factor in deaths of partners in committed non-traditional relationships.
Those left behind face redefining their lives to deal in new ways with family and friends, as well as unresolved feelings and regrets left over from marriage, according to Dr. Morton Lieberman, director of the Aging and Mental Health Program at the University of California at San Francisco, in his book, “Doors Close, Doors Open: Widows, Grieving and Growing.”
A brochure provided by AARP’s Grief and Loss Program advises, “As time progresses, you will feel less intense pain, but you will not forget. You will never be your old self again (you have had a major life change), but you can be a different self who is ‘okay.’”
Statistically, the job of rebuilding is left to wives. Most widows — 69 percent — are women. And the numbers play havoc with the image of the frail, elderly widow. According to the National Vital Statistics Report, there are currently 500,000 widows under the age of 45 in the United States, many with children, leading to more complex issues.
Shellie Gill is one of them.
Shellie was only 36 when her husband Joe died suddenly of a rare strep infection in February, leaving behind their daughter, Madeline, 7, and 3-year-old son, Stephen. A few weeks after Joe’s death, Shellie described their children as “the only bright spot … the reason I make myself get up in the morning; the reason I make myself eat and dress and bathe. It’s good that I have them.
“We balanced each other,” Shellie said. “Joe brought something to the kids that I don’t think I can. I am the serious one — ‘brush your teeth, drink your milk’; he brought them laughter and fun. He made us a family.
“I know how to turn off the water and light the pilot light, but I don’t know how to comfort Maddie when she says, ‘My Daddy will never see me in braces.’ Or what to say to Stephen when he cries at night and says, ‘But my Daddy wants to come home.’”
At night when the children go to sleep, Shellie faces her own grief.
She desperately misses the way “Joe felt — his eyebrows and his hands.” A few weeks after Joe’s death, Shellie found a tape recording of Joe and Stephen singing “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie.” “I just lost it,” she said.
Because Joe’s death is so recent, Shellie is just beginning to reach out for help. “I realize I need help and want all of it I can get,” she said, so she is seeing a professional counselor and takes the kids to Solace House, a grief and bereavement program for children and their families in Kansas City, Mo.
Older widows with little education or financial means sometimes surprise themselves and everyone around them by bucking the odds and starting over.
Six years ago, when Teresa Serda lost her husband of 42 years, their 16 children were grown, and she was a long way from Mexico, where she had grown up “very, very poor.” When they married, he was widowed and had six children. She was only 21 years old.
Teresa knew that she would have to support herself when her husband died and that it would not be easy. She had no formal education and couldn’t drive or read. So her dying husband was surprised when she told him she planned to get a job, and didn’t want “to cook or to clean.”
It was a bold idea for a woman who had never gone to the grocery store without her husband. But within a year she was true to her word. Teresa now works at a community center that provides social services to Spanish-speaking people. She lives alone with her dog, Maggie, and her parakeet, Charlie.
“I started working and working every day. And my son can’t believe it that I work. He said, ‘Oh, Mom, why do you work?’ I use him for my ride and sometimes I don’t have a ride and I pay a cab. … If I am not sick, I’m here every day … and, you know, my life gets better and better and better.”
One of her daughters recently gave her the highest praise: “I think Dad is proud of you.”
Men who are widowed face a different set of stresses, proven by their death rate, which is three times higher than that for women in the same circumstances, according to the AARP.
Typically, men have two things working against healing: They don’t expect to live longer than their wives, and their socialization and training tell them that they should be strong and silent. Often they have lost the only person in the world to whom they are comfortable confiding their feelings at a time when it is critically important to have someone to talk to.
When Michael Goshorn’s wife was diagnosed with cancer in late 1992, the couple found plenty of information online about her disease and support groups. So, when she died in January 1993, he turned to the Web again, but this time he didn’t find what he needed — information that addressed specific issues about widowhood for men.
When he couldn’t find the resources he needed, he created them in the form of, a comprehensive site that provides practical information and self-help. The site includes a message board and sections with titles like “Dumb Remarks and Stupid Questions” and “Getting Through the Holidays,” as well as links to help men grapple with their new identities.
Building a new life or finding new meaning sometimes requires just taking another approach to your “old” life.
After Bonnie Story moved from Charleston, she got help from a professional counselor who helped her deal with intense feelings of anger, a feeling many widows say takes control of their lives.
“I wasn’t angry at God, and I certainly wasn’t angry at Bud,’’ she said. “I was just angry — angry at everyone and about everything.”
The counselor helped her to realize that her feelings “weren’t weird, that I wasn’t going crazy.”
Counseling and reading gave Bonnie some ideas about how to find her new self: Bonnie without Bud.
Bonnie began to realize that “you have to find some major reason you are still here.” She found that reason in the life she had lived before Bud died.
Two years ago, Bonnie moved back to Charleston and started teaching again. “To impact the lives of thirteen or fourteen kids each year — that’s important enough.” Recently, she had a two-hour lunch with a friend from whom she had felt estranged since Bud died. She now believes they will build a new friendship.
“I know that I will never get over my loss,” Bonnie said. “But I’ve found ease in my heart and freedom in my life.”

2001, Partnership for Caring, Inc.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


Every bereaved spouse has to work through grief and loss in his or her own way, but here are some general tips:

Take control of your financial resources. If your spouse was employed, seek help from his or her company’s human resources department. As soon as possible, find a financial adviser, make a budget, visit a tax accountant or lawyer. Contact the Social Security office for information and current rules about benefits for yourself and your children.

Maintain as much stability in your life as possible for a while; don’t quit your job, sell your house or move right away.

Take care of yourself. Eat a healthy diet, exercise and get enough sleep.

Here are some questions commonly asked after the death of a spouse:

Should I still wear my wedding ring? 
There is no such thing as “wedding ring etiquette.” Do what makes you most comfortable. Some widows place their wedding rings on their right hand, others remove their rings, sometimes saving them for future generations. Some have their rings fashioned into a special new piece of jewelry and others wear their ring all their life.

Q: What should I do with my husband/wife’s clothes? 
This is a special concern to most widows. Trust yourself to know when the time is right to dispense with the personal belongings. Some people give them to family and friends, others to charitable organizations. This task doesn’t have to be done all at once. It usually helps to go through belongings with a friend or family member so you can share memories and stories — it may make the task less distressing. 

Q: How can I get others to talk about my deceased spouse? 
People are afraid that any mention will make you sad. They feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to say. You can help them and yourself by sharing memories of your loved one with them. You might open the door by saying, “Remember when Jim ...?” Or be direct and simply say to friends and family that you want to talk about your loved one and want others to do so, too.

Q: How can I get through birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and other special events? 
For most people, special occasions are difficult, especially the first ones following a loved one’s death. Anticipate that they may be difficult and prepare yourself. It’s fine to put traditions in mothballs to be recycled when you feel stronger, or to create new traditions. Try a diversion, such as a family trip or volunteering time at a social service agency that helps others during the holidays. Visit the cemetery or site where your loved one’s ashes were scattered. Prayers, toasts and other tributes in your loved one’s honor also may be helpful.

Q: When should I start dating? 
The traditional one-year period of mourning is usually observed. However, some people may choose to seek companionship earlier — and some may never choose to do so. Only you will know when the time is right. It’s important to remember that you are vulnerable and to be cautious. 

Q: Should I attend a bereavement support group? 
Everyone needs help from others during times of intense grief. Most people rely on the support of friends and family. Some seek counseling from clergy or other spiritual advisers. To find a support group, contact local faith communities, the YMCA, YWCA, a local hospice, or contact Widowed Person’s Service of AARP at (202) 424-2260. Support groups aren’t for everyone. So if you try and it doesn’t feel right or seem to help, don’t feel badly about dropping out. 

Q: How will I know when I’m getting better? 
Many experts encourage widows to keep a journal. Periodically reading earlier entries provides tangible evidence of improvement. As one participant in a chat room for young widows said, “You know you are getting better when you wake up one morning and don’t have to force yourself to breathe.” Another milestone is when you can talk about memories with a smile instead of tears. Remember: Things will never be the same, but you can and will feel happiness again. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. How is widowhood different for the "young" widow than for the stereotypical widow, i.e., an elderly woman?
  2. Although the experience of each widow is unique, what were the common experiences for all those featured in the article?
  3. What services are available in your community for those experiencing widowhood? For their children?
  4. What made Teresa's experience of widowhood especially difficult? How does not being from the dominant culture potentially add to the stress of widowhood?

Points and Observations:

  1. Bonnie Story - As a well-positioned, middle-aged woman, Bonnie felt isolated from family and friends after her husband's death.  Her efforts to define herselfindependently from her role as wife and mother did not end her grief but helped her to find a new and meaningful life.
  2. Shellie Gill - Although Shellie is confronted with raising her children alone, she is extremely grateful for them.  Finding help for them at a time when she is grieving has proven to be challenging. 
  3. Teresa Serda - Teresa is the person in the article who, at first glance, appears to be the most dependent upon her husband, has amazed everyone, including her children, by demonstrating capacity and the independence to work outside her home for the first time in her life.

References and Resources:

  1. Brooks, F. (1995). Letters to my husband. Career Press. This book is a collection of letters written by the author to her deceased husband out of a strong need to hold onto their special relationship.  It is a beautiful love story as well as a powerful account of one person's grief. It is beautifully written but sometimes painful to read even for the person who has not recently experienced the loss of a spouse.
  2. Feinberg, L. (1994). I'm grieving as fast as I can:  How young widows and widowers can cope and heal. New Horizon Press. The author of this book is a social worker who specializes in grief and bereavement counseling.  It is based on interviews with dozens of young widows, and as the sub-title implies it is targeted toward them. This book provides assistance with the special needs of the young widow, e.g., single parenting and a special sense of isolation.
  3. Lieberman, M. (1996). Doors close, doors open:  Widows, grieving and growing. Putnam. The author, Morton Lieberman is a well known psychologist who directs the Aging and Mental Health Center at the University of California at San Francisco.  Doors Close, Doors Open is based on years of scholarly research but easy to read.  It focuses on the need for the widowed person to create a new life and find a new identity after the loss of a spouse. 
  4. Smith, H. I. (1999). A Decembered grief:  Living with loss while others are celebrating. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press. Many widows express special emotional difficulty during the Christmas season.  This book is filled with helpful tips of practical, specific things a widow can do to deal with their loss during this season of celebration. It has a Christian focus. 
  5. Foehner, C., & Cozart, C. (1998). Widows handbook:  A guide for living. Fulcrum Publishing, This book is incredibly comprehensive. It covers an amazing array of issues a widow may confront -- everything from making decisions about autopsy to proper care of the car and managing financial matters.  It is focused on the first two years after becoming a widow.
  6. Ginsburg, G. (1999). Widow to widow: Thoughtful, practical ideas for rebuilding your life. Fisher Book. A marriage counselor by profession when her husband died suddenly, the author started a support group for widows and eventually redirected her career exclusively toward counseling with widows.  This book reveals the shared experience of hundreds of widows and widowers with whom she has worked.  It is accurately described in the preface as "a support group between the covers."
  7. Winsch, J. L. (1995). After the funeral. Paulist Press. This children's book offers real help to the widow with small children. It provides a helpful tool for the widow with small children.  In a direct manner it addresses the concerns of grieving children.  It is beautifully illustrated and includes multi-cultural drawings.
  8. Krimbill, J., & Brown, N. (1995). Widowing:  Surviving the first year. Magoo Ltd. This book was written by two best friends who both were widowed in their mid-fifties.  It offers step-by-step advice for the recent widow.  It contains helpful checklists about a variety of activities that have traditionally been done by men in our society such as maintenance of the car and lawn as well as confronting one's emotions.  It is concise and to the point.
  9. American Association of Retired Persons Grief and Loss Programs, On Being Alone, Men and Grief, and Special Issues for Younger Women. Washington, D.C. (202) 434-2260. All three of these brochures provide helpful information.  They give facts, and resources and are available without charge. 

Links: You must be connected to the internet for these links to work.

AARP Grief and Loss Programs
Offers a variety of programs in which volunteers reach out to widows.
601 E Street, NW
Washington, DC 20049

Hospice Foundation of America
Offers information to professionals and families about caregiving, terminal illness, loss and bereavement. 
2001 S Street, NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20009
(202) 638-5419 or 1-800-854-3402 

Parents Without Partners

Offers support, information and resources for single parents.
1650 S. Dixie Highway, Suite 510
Boca Raton, FL 33432
(561) 391-8833 

ElderHope, LLC.

Publishes THEOS magazine, books, organizational materials for widowed men and women and the professionals who work with them. Organizes local support groups in the United States and Canada.
322 Blvd. of the Allies
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 471-7779

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
Provides a search for hospice and palliative care, as well as statistics, resources and information.
1700 Diagonal Road, Suite 300
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 837-1500

Society of Military Widows/National Association of Uniformed Services, Inc.
Offers information and support to military widows.
5535 Hempstead Way
Springfield, VA 22151
(703) 750-1342