Death of a Spouse: What is the Widowhood Effect?
Have you ever wondered why widows tend to die so soon after the death of a spouse? It’s called the widowhood effect, and here’s how it could impact you.
In 2009, my Dad died after a battle with prostate cancer. Six months later, my Mom and our family enjoyed a beautiful Sunday afternoon on the back deck of my house. The next day, I had to take my Mom to the hospital where she died two days later due to a toxic condition and colon cancer (which she had left untreated and had told none of her family or friends about). My parents had been married for over 50 years and retired for over a decade.
In my sorrow, a few weeks later, I ventured cross country to spend a weekend with my friend, Sam Kirk in Los Angeles. His recommended treatment of tequila, cigars, and watching planes fly over his Santa Monica home all night allowed me to open up and discuss my grief with one of my closest friends. We discussed how people would often say that it was not uncommon for a spouse to die so soon after the loss of the other spouse. If this was true, I wondered why it was so.
The paragraph above details how my parents died within six months of each other – and that story is what led me to write a book that examines the ways to prevent widows from dying so soon after the death of their spouse. What I found as I was doing research for the book is that this phenomenon is real, and is known as the “widowhood effect.” Not only that, according to Harvard University sociologists and the National Institute of Aging, it is more prevalent among men and White partners. In the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying (yes, everything exists online), the definition of widower includes a few lines on this phenomenon: “Much of the research suggests that there is a greater prevalence of mortality and morbidity among the spousal bereaved compared to those who are currently married. Many of these same studies further report that the risk of becoming physically ill or dying soon after the loss of a spouse is greatest for widowers. The fact that men tend to be older when their spouses die could explain some of these findings. Although mortality is less common among younger widowers, the difference between their mortality rates and those of their married counterparts is greater than what is observed among older age groups, especially within the first six months of bereavement.”
Although studies seem to bear out the reality of the “widowhood effect,” the reality is that the death of a spouse doesn’t mean a death sentence for the widow. Rather, there are many studies and examples of how seniors have been able to cope with their grief and rather than losing hope (and thus their reason to live), they are doing what their deceased spouse would want them to do – continue to live and live fully.
The grief of losing a spouse in retirement can be overwhelming, especially for those who are unable to lean on others for support or who don’t have a structure in their retirement. I believe that finding happiness in retirement and as we age requires planning in the following areas: financial, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. It also requires that retirees be involved with others and with activities that allow them to continue to grow. These support structures are vital to helping retirees weather the storms of loss that come with retirement. Another resource that older adults have for helping them deal with the loss of a spouse or loved one: friends, peers, and siblings who have been through a similar situation.
As I write in my book, the realities of retirement will cause us to lose friends and family. It’s not only how we deal with these situations that provide us with a safe retirement, but it’s also our ability to help and support others in these situations.
This article is part of the eFuneral Resource Center and was written by Jack Tatar, author of three books that are changing how people view retirement, including his latest, “Having the Talk: The Four Keys to Your Parents’ Safe Retirement.” If you would like to know more about Jack and his work, please review his website www.Safe4Retirement.com or contact him directly at Jack@Safe4Retirement.com. Those thinking about end-of-life should visit eFuneral.com for help researching, planning, and arranging a wide variety of funeral-related services.