In This Session:
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
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.
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.
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
“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
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
At night when the children go to sleep, Shellie faces her
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
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,
“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 www.WidowNet.org, 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
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.
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:
I still wear my wedding ring?
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
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
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?
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?
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
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?
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
is widowhood different for the "young" widow than
for the stereotypical widow, i.e., an elderly woman?
- Although the experience
of each widow is unique, what were the common experiences for
all those featured in the article?
- What services
are available in your community for those experiencing widowhood?
For their children?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Lieberman, M. (1996).
Doors close, doors open: Widows, grieving and growing.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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
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
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
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
Society of Military Widows/National Association of Uniformed
Offers information and support to military widows.
5535 Hempstead Way
Springfield, VA 22151