Widows and Divorcees in Later Life: On Their Own Again, edited by Carol L. Jenkins. Binghamton, NY, Hawthorn Press, 2003, 192 pp., $39.95 (cloth), $24.95 (paper).
Widow to Widow: Thoughtful, Practical Ideas for Rebuilding Your Life, by Genevieve Davis Ginsburg. De Capo Press, Cambridge, MA, 2004, 222 pp., $15.95 (paper).
As life expectancy increased over the 20th century, the normative sequencing of major life transitions also shifted. For example, increases in longevity allowed for new leisure opportunities and created a stage of life called retirement. “Emerging adulthood” is the life stage that developed after young adults delayed their transition to adulthood by attaining higher levels of education and pushing back the age at which they marry and bear children. Of particular interest to this essay is the emergence of another life phase I am calling “late-life singlehood.” Late-life singlehood results from the dissolution of marriage, either through widowhood or divorce. It typically occurs after one has spent the majority of his or her adult life in a marital relationship.
It's A Girl Thing
Gender differences in life expectancy, coupled with the fact that women marry men older than they are, mean that women are more likely than men to experience late-life singlehood. As shown in Table 1, the vast majority of males remain married throughout their lifetimes. On the other hand, only 56% of women age 65 to 74 are married; and less than one third are married by the time they reach age 75. Today, women can expect to live an additional 19 years past age 65, suggesting that this phase of late-life singlehood occupies a significant proportion of the contemporary female life span.
Although spousal loss is a very common occurrence in the female life course, stress scholars claim that widowhood is one of the most distressing of all the life transitions (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). This essay reviews two books that explore the specific challenges older women face as they enter and occupy this unique phase of the life course. Unlike the psychological focus of traditional bereavement research, the two books reviewed in this essay consider a broader range of adjustments that women face upon the dissolution of marriage. In addition to psychological distress, older women also encounter social, economic, health, and behavioral consequences after spousal loss.
Widows Versus Divorcees
One of the books, Widows and Divorcees in Later Life: On Their Own Again, is a thematic collection of peer-reviewed articles exploring the various challenges older single women encounter. The volume, edited by Carol Jenkins, was simultaneously published as a special issue of the Journal of Women and Aging (Volume 15, Issue 2/3), perhaps explaining why it seems somewhat disjointed and fragmented when reading it cover to cover. While the editor attempted to synthesize the diverse articles with a short introduction and a concluding chapter, the book still reads more like a collection of journal articles than a well-integrated monograph.
That being said, Widows and Divorcees in Later Life offers nine stand-alone articles that address some of the most important issues older women face. Using a variety of theoretical and empirical approaches, the authors discuss topics such as the increased risk of hospitalization after widowhood (by James and Sarah Laditka) and the retirement prospects of divorced women (by Barbara Butrica and Howard Iams). Other topics addressed in the book are how older widows maintain their independence in light of chronic illness (by Jenkins) and how spirituality and religion can offset the stress associated with spousal loss (by Scott Michael, Martha Crowther, Bettina Schmid, and Rebecca Allen). Nearly all of the authors discuss the importance of family members and friends as a means for support and understanding to the single older woman. Taken together, this collection of loosely related articles provides an excellent overview of some of the most common challenges faced by single older women.
An additional strength of this edited volume is its attention to cultural and ethnic diversity. Across many of the individual articles, the authors suggest that a woman's experience of spousal loss is a reflection of the historical time and cultural location in which she lives. For example, James McNally provides a comparative analysis of widowhood and family support in the North and South Pacific. Maria Cattell discusses the history of widowhood in African cultures. Jacqueline Angel, Nora Douglas, and Ronald Angel explore the long-term care arrangements of Mexican American widows, while Karen Glaser, Emily Grundy, and Kevin Lynch examine the living arrangements of widows in England and Wales. A final article by Dorothy Ruiz, Carolyn Zhu, and Martha Crowther discusses African Americans' experiences as custodial grandparents. These articles underscore the fact that although single older women face a common set of challenges, the individual experience is dependent on the historical and cultural context in which it occurs. Most notably, social policies and normative expectations influence what types of challenges an older widow or divorcee may face and what types of support she may receive.
Although the title of this compendium is Widows and Divorcees in Later Life, the book is largely an exploration of how older women cope with late-life widowhood, not divorce. Of the nine total articles, only one article (by Butrica and Iams) addresses the late-life implications of divorce. An additional article (by Glaser et al.) includes both widows and divorcees in a single analysis; however, the authors lump the widows and divorcees into a single category of “nonmarried.” Given how common widowhood is in later life (refer back to Table 1), I was not surprised that the articles emphasized widowhood more than divorce. However, I was disappointed that the book did not explicitly compare the experience of widows and divorcees.
Although both widowhood and divorce mark the end of a marital relationship, widowhood begins when a loved one dies. Divorce begins when both spouses sign a legal document. It is critical that we as gerontologists begin considering questions such as: Are older widows and divorcees subjected to the same types of stressors and adjustments? Do divorcees fare better than widows (or vice versa), under what circumstances, and why? Comparative analyses that tease apart the differences and similarities between widowhood and divorce will allow practitioners and policy makers to address the variety of needs of the older single woman.
Practical Ideas for Widows
The second book, Widow to Widow: Thoughtful, Practical Ideas for Rebuilding Your Life, focuses exclusively on how women cope with widowhood. The author, Genevieve Davis Ginsburg, has skillfully crafted an easy-to-read self-help guide for bereaved women. The book blends humor, emotion, and everyday experience to provide practical and compassionate advice for widowed persons. Published as a hardcover volume in the late 1990s, it was recently released as a paperback.
The author, who is a widow herself, aptly describes the many challenges widows face. In a series of very short chapters, she details the expected and unexpected emotions that arise after spousal loss, as well as the practical decisions women must make after the death of their spouse. She suggests that spousal bereavement “is the most profound of all emotional experiences,” yet she encourages women to embrace the unique opportunities that are afforded by this devastating and often unwanted event. She provides sage advice for women who are making the very routine, yet overwhelming, decisions associated with being a widow—such as when to empty the closets and drawers of the deceased, how to respond to all the sympathy mail received, removing a wedding band, eating alone, dating, and paying bills. She even included a chapter on how single older women can achieve sexual gratification and one entitled “Yesterday a Wife, Today a Mechanic.” Ginsburg's attention to both the emotional and practical dimensions of widowhood makes her book one of the most thoughtful commentaries on widowhood that I have read.
Widow to Widow is intended to be a self-help guide for the bereaved; the author calls it a “support group between covers.” In spite of this, the scholarly merits of this book should not be overlooked or minimized. Ginsburg, a marriage counselor by training, has directed a program called “Widowed to Widowed Services” in Tempe, Arizona, since 1977. She drew upon the countless stories of the women she counseled to develop recognizable and common experiences to which all widowed women can relate. As a result, she has created an eloquent and rich narrative account of what it means to be widowed and what it takes to rebuild one's life after widowhood. The accessibility of her language and depth of her understanding provide an element of truth and clarity that is often lacking in the empirical analyses of bereavement. In this regard, I found Ginsburg's book to be an impressive piece of qualitative scholarship. It allowed me, as a bereavement scholar who has never experienced bereavement personally, to gain a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities that widows confront. It broadened my perspective and provided a series of research questions I had not yet considered.
Although written for very different audiences and for different purposes, these two books touch upon some of the most important issues related to late-life singlehood. The former book provides an ideal set of articles that could be used in a university course on women and aging. The latter provides a thoughtful and practical guidebook that could be given to the recently bereaved. The remainder of this essay will briefly explore four common themes that emerged from both texts.
Spousal loss requires many layers of adjustment.
Spousal loss, although emotionally distressing, can lead to personal growth and new opportunities for the single older woman.
The stress of losing a spouse can be offset by various forms of social support.
Even though spousal loss is a common transition in the female life cycle, each individual will exhibit a unique pattern of adjustment.
Multiple Layers of Loss
In order to understand the myriad challenges women face upon spousal loss, it is necessary to understand what was actually lost when the marriage ended. For some, the end of marriage means the loss of an intimate life partner, confidant, or friend. For others, it may represent the loss of a handyman, mechanic, or financial advisor. For most women, it is some combination of the above. The true nature of a woman's loss depends on the history of the relationship with her spouse. In the case of late-life singlehood, that relationship may have a very long history, spanning many decades of her adult life.
When two persons initially enter a marital union, they publicly vow to love, honor, and cherish one another. They also begin to function as a unit or team. For example, one spouse may prepare dinner, while the other washes the dishes. The husband may work for pay, while the wife stays at home with the children. Couples allocate daily tasks in order to capitalize on each spouse's strengths, while not duplicating either's efforts. In theory, the couple is more efficient and productive than either spouse could be alone.
When marriages come to an end, either through death or divorce, this well-oiled machine breaks down. The surviving spouse becomes responsible for all the tasks of daily life, including those that were previously managed by her late (or former) spouse. She must do this while also grieving the loss of an intimate personal relationship. The goal of a single older woman is not to restore her previous life but to rebuild her life so that it reflects her new reality as a single older woman. Adopting Ginsburg's terminology, the biggest challenge faced by a newly single woman is the process of “uncoupling” where she must evolve “from one half of a couple to a whole person.”
A popular theory called the Dual Process Model of Coping (Stroebe & Schut, 1999) explains that bereaved persons oscillate between loss-oriented and restoration-oriented coping tasks. Loss-oriented coping allows the bereaved to come to terms with the emotional grief of losing an intimate life partner, while restoration-oriented coping allows the bereaved to rebuild daily activities and social relationships that were disrupted by the death of the husband. Bereavement, therefore, has been redefined. It is not merely pining for the deceased spouse; it is a multidimensional process of adjustment in which the bereaved must address the social, psychological, financial, and instrumental losses associated with the end of a marriage.
While some women exhibit intense and prolonged distress, others display remarkable resilience and personal growth following the loss of their spouse. As a result, bereavement scholars have begun to explore the positive outcomes, rather than simply the negative outcomes, associated with spousal loss (Carr, 2004). As a clinician, Ginsburg reminds women that widowhood is an “opportunity to discover the person buried under so many layers of daughter, wife, mother.” She encourages women to think of widowhood as “selfhood” and to enjoy the time they can devote to their own personal needs. Late-life singlehood is often a time for self-discovery, renewal, and reflection.
The single older woman often exhibits increased confidence and self-esteem as she rebuilds and becomes more comfortable with her new life as a single woman. For example, the woman who never mowed the lawn or completed her own taxes (because her husband used to do these tasks) will feel tremendous pride when realizing she is capable of performing these routine tasks. She may experience a sense of personal growth because she knows she does not have to depend on others for her daily survival. In other words, that which does not kill her only makes her stronger.
You are not Alone
Social support is one factor that buffers the negative effects of spousal loss. Friends, family members, and neighbors often provide the single older woman with various forms of emotional and instrumental support to help ease the difficult transition. Friends who have lost their husbands provide empathy and understanding to the single older woman. Family members and friends, who are likely to be mourning the loss as well, may assist with chores or errands. They may provide financial assistance or alternative living arrangements. They may provide diversion from sadness or a reprieve from loneliness. Widows receive so much social support that Jenkins concluded the single older woman is “NOT on her own again.” She is surrounded by friends, family members, and neighbors who are concerned about her well-being and are willing to assist wherever needed. The support, whether perceived or received, helps to offset the tremendous loss she feels.
Research finds that adult children provide a significant amount of support for their widowed and divorced mothers, sometimes even coresidential living options. However, in highly mobile societies like the United States, children are often geographically dispersed from their mothers, forcing them to rely on technology, such as telephones and computers, to bring them closer to their children. Furthermore, as more couples remain childless, a greater percentage of older women will face this difficult transition without the support provided by adult children. To offset these demographic trends, the single older woman may rely more heavily on peers and mutual-help groups, such as Ginsburg's “Widowed to Widowed Services,” to find support and understanding. During 2003, nearly 9,000,000 elderly women were widowed, and approximately 1,700,000 women age 65 and older were divorced (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). Surely, an older woman experiencing spousal loss will find comfort in the fact that so many of her peers are experiencing the same difficult transition. The commonality of the experience will bind single older women together.
Every Woman for Herself
Although women may experience similar types of stressors after spousal loss, an important theme in bereavement research is that no woman will experience the dissolution of marriage in exactly the same way as another woman. This assumption is in sharp contrast to the traditional stage theories, which claim that the majority of bereaved persons will experience the same set of symptoms in a similar sequence (Kübler-Ross, 1969). The books reviewed in this essay suggest that the duration, course, and patterning of adjustment is dependent on individual risk factors, such as demographic characteristics (age, gender, socioeconomic status), whether the bereaved had previous mental health problems, the quality and duration of the marital relationship, the availability of social support, and the nature of the death. As demonstrated by the analyses presented in the Jenkins volume, grief is also dependent on the cultural and historical context in which it occurs. The confluence of these factors creates a unique grief experience for each individual.
In conclusion, the two books reviewed in this essay provided a backdrop from which to discuss the most important trends in contemporary bereavement research. The Jenkins volume reminded us that late-life singlehood may result from divorce, in addition to widowhood. This is a particularly important distinction to consider because it is likely divorce will be more common among future cohorts of older women. The Ginsburg book, which provided a deeply personal account of widowhood, revealed insight and practical suggestions that could only come from firsthand knowledge of being widowed. Taken together, these two books, which were written for very different audiences, summarize some of the most critical issues in bereavement research. Both books emphasize the multiple sources of stress that follow spousal loss, the notion that not all grief may be bad for the single older woman, the importance of social support, and the individuality of the bereavement experience. Although late-life singlehood is among the most common transitions in a woman's life, it is also one of the most difficult transitions a woman will face.
Marital Status of the U.S. Population by Sex and Age, 2003.
2004). Gender, preloss marital dependence, and older adults' adjustment to widowhood.
Journal of Marriage and Family,
1967). The social readjustment scale.
Journal of Psychosomatic Research,
1969). On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan.
1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: Rationale and description.
2005). Table no. 53. Marital status of the population by sex and age: 2003. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2004–2005, 49.
The Gerontological Society of America
|Copyright © 2008 Jupiter Infomedia Ltd. All rights reserved including the right to reproduce the contents in whole or in part in any form or medium without the express written permission of Jupiter Infomedia Ltd.|