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The Widowed Self

Interview with Deborah Kestin van den Hoonaard

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How did you come to write The Widowed Self?

A number of years ago, a student lent me a book called When Things Get Back to Normal. The book was written by a widow, M.T. Dohaney, and was her journal of her first year as a widow. It took me two hours to read the book, and it moved me deeply because the book was so emotionally powerful. This was nothing like the academic literature I’d read on widowhood that does not even try to communicate the emotional intensity of women’s experiences as widows. I then read every published account of widowhood I could get my hands on and was impressed by the power of reading widows’ own words. But most of these accounts were written by younger widows. What about older women? What was their experience like? I decided to try to answer these questions by interviewing widows over 50. The Widowed Self is based on what these women, who are the real experts on widowhood, told me. The book quotes extensively from the interviews because of the potency of the women’s own words.

What can relatives do when a woman becomes a widow?

What relatives and friends do during the first few days is very important and may colour their relationship with a widow for a long time. The notes women receive and the number of people who come to the funeral mean a great deal to widows particularly if more people come to the funeral than expected. Being supportive is essential.

How do a woman’s relationships change after her husband dies?

A woman usually finds that all her relationships change and that she needs to find new ways to interact with her children, with friends, and with men. Her children may become very protective and try to treat their mother like a child. The new widow needs to find ways to assert her status as an adult. Many women are very creative in finding ways to establish a new balance in their relationship with their children. They need more support or help from their children than in the past, but they also want to and do find ways to assist their children so that they are not taking more than they give. Women who cannot find this balance are not as satisfied with their relationship with their children as those who can.

Widows face many challenges in trying to maintain relationships with step-children. Several recounted painful stories about their husbands’ children suspecting them of trying to keep family heirlooms from them and the resulting cutting of ties with those children with whom they had thought they had a good relationship. Another was angry at how her husband’s children had treated him while he was dying. Only one recounted a continuing close relationship with her step-children.

Most women report that they have been dropped by at least some of their friends. This finding is not new; it has been noted by almost everyone who has studied widowhood. It’s hard to explain why this happens, but it does seem that although widows seem quite clear that they need to “keep up appearances” and not seem too depressed in front of their friends, it is far less clear what widows can expect from their friends. It may be that at least some of the problem between widows and their couple friends comes from the lack of norms regarding what friends of widows are supposed to do. However, I also found that most women make new friends, and that there are always some people who come through for them in unexpected ways. As well, women who are life-long residents in rural areas are less likely to find themselves dropped by their friends than urban widows or these who have moved to rural areas as adults.

Finding ways to interact with men is more difficult. Many women and men believe that it’s impossible for a man and a woman to be friends without a romantic relationship developing. Most of the women I spoke with did not want to remarry for a variety of reasons, and they found it difficult to interpret approaches from men. Some widows feel uncomfortable going out with men. Others were very creative in finding ways to interact with men in safe environments where it was understood that a romantic or sexual relationship was not expected.

What about financial issues. Don’t most older women have little experience handling money?

I was surprised that most of the women I interviewed had been involved in managing money while they were married although they all knew some women who “didn’t even know how to write a cheque” when their husbands died. Nonetheless, most women’s incomes were cut in half when their husbands died, and they were worried about how to make decisions about the money they did have. The widows generally said that they were “getting by” on whatever they had, and a couple had taken in borders and shopped at garage sales in order to make ends meet. Even the obviously poor widows I spoke to thought that a woman who couldn’t get by probably was not very good with money.

The few women who had more than adequate incomes went to financial advisors in order to get help with decision-making. They also tended to be quite secretive about how much money they had and thought that friends and relatives might be jealous. As a result, they were likely to isolate themselves in order to protect their money.

What are the most important things that this book has to tell us about widows?

First of all, the way women experience widowhood has a lot to do with what has happened earlier in their lives and how they have interpreted it. They told me that I couldn’t understand what it is like for them to be widows unless I also know what it was like to be married. Some women have experienced many transitions in their lives that they have seen as positive. These women have the tools to build new lives and to have a sense of accomplishment in the building.

Second, older women can be very creative and resilient in rebuilding their lives after their husbands die. They find they can learn to live alone and learn to enjoy living alone. Learning to do new things, such as programming their VCR and driving and maintaining their car, give them a feeling of confidence that is quite unexpected. It would be a mistake to underestimate the emotional impact and challenge that women face, but most of them are surprised at how well they do and should be an inspiration to all of us.