Widows in America
The Impact of Widowhood
By Josh Hollingsworth
She woke up early on a Saturday morning. Put on her pink terry cloth robe embroidered with her initials, TM. She made coffee, let the cat out and picked up the paper. Nothing had changed in thirty-three years. Her husband on any other day would have joined her for coffee and split the paper. This day however, she sat alone reading the headlines in the blue gray morning twilight. My informant is 61 years old and was married to her husband at barely nineteen. She’s graying at the roots but has youthful skin; she carries worry in her forehead and it is deeply creased. She is joined across the United States by millions of women which live as widows. This year, “nearly 700,000 women (will) lose their husbands… and will be widows for an average of 14 years. (U.S. Census, 1999) My research seeks to better understand the impact that widowhood has on the social and economic status of widowed women in the United States.
Marriage is a cultural institution dating back to the beginning of human civilization. The word marriage has come to mean many different things, but in general the idea of marriage in modern western culture is a union of two people who will spend the rest of their lives together. One constant in marriage throughout history is death; eventually, one of the partners will die. A widow will be defined, for the purpose of this project, as a woman who was at one time married and has lost her husband due to his death.
Pat had always been a caretaker, raising two children, making sure that her husband was happy, visiting her elderly parent’s everyday. She teaches high schoolers English and literature, but she rarely had time to read herself. I was early for our appointment, really early. She struck me as a woman that would not appreciate tardiness. I sat at the restaurant and drank my iced-tea waiting for her to walk through the doors.
When she arrived I saw that she was frazzled and asked her if another time would be better for the interview. She looked at me with an “it’s now or never,” expression on her face. She was dressed like every high school English teacher I could remember, conservative yet relaxed. The server came over soon after and she ordered a well whiskey and water. She smiled at me and said “social lubrication.” I started to panic inside, was she going to get wasted after a hard day at school or was she simply nervous? I confidently reassured her that “lubrication” wasn’t necessary I was just going to talk about her life. “In that case you might need one too,” I smiled politely and proceeded to have her sign the consent form.
The mood changed, she sat straighter and crossed her fingers on the table. Quietly she slipped back into teacher mode. “Tell me about your husband.” She smiled wide, almost silly, and shook her neck length gray-blond hair lightly back and forth. She sat back in her chair and lit a menthol cigarette.
“Bobby was a real man, good looking and strong, great dad,” she beamed and her cheeks got rosy.
It was sad, really wrenching, yet inspiring the love that she obviously felt for a man that had died several years before. She described the way they met, lived in run down farmhouse, washed themselves and everything else in a bathtub and finally started a family. I had no idea that one question could lead a person to share their life in such candid honesty. The server brought her ice water and refilled mine; she thanked him gracefully. “How did Bobby..” she politely interjected, “pass- away,” I nodded, hoping that I didn’t jump the gun.
“Almost half the women over 65 years of age in the United States are widows. About 7 in 10 of these women live alone.” (2000 U.S. Census) In recent years the average American woman’s expected lifespan has increased to eighty or more. However, the societal systems in place for caring for the elderly have not changed at the same rapid pace leaving many widows in poverty. One Social Security Administration report shows that “for the past thirty or more years the rate of poverty among elderly widows is consistently three to four times higher than elderly married women.” (SSA, 2005) These statistics do not take into account the population of widows under the age of 65 or those raising families.
Pat looked down at her drink; swirled it, then took a long sip. I could tell that she was getting ready to talk to me like I’d never experienced death. “Well, he was a heroin addict and he overdosed.” She looked at me with an expectant gaze. I didn’t respond. I just tried to be as receptive as possible. I fidgeted and held her eye contact. “When did this happen?” She paused a moment. “October 12, 2003.” She didn’t volunteer any more information and I could tell that his death was not a subject that she talked about often if at all.
I was relived when I saw the server arrive with our food. It would give us a pause and allow her time to decide how to proceed. She ate like with an unfamiliar politeness cutting her food with a knife and chewing thoroughly. I began to think that she kept her mouth full to avoid my questions. “When he died, the boys were still fairly young; our youngest was still in school.” Did he cope well? A long, chewing pause. “He was treated pretty crappy by a lot of his friends and other teachers; they all knew that Bobby had a problem with drugs.” She went on to describe the way that people reacted to his death, and the fact that his death was interpreted by a lot of people to be “just,” because of his addiction. “One woman actually told me that I was better off now that he was gone. That now that he’s dead I could move on with my life and find a man that would treat me the way I ‘deserved.’” Her face was angry and she picked up her glass. It was interesting the way she described in vivid detail the awkwardness people handled Bobby’s death with. In my reading I’ve found the situation somewhat universal. Death is a subject that we all have to deal with many times in our lives yet there is a degree of callousness that goes with our desire to comfort ourselves when faced with someone else’s personal tragedy.
When I asked Pat how her friends treated her after Bobby’s death she was obviously bemused. “The friends you have as couple become less and less interesting once you lose a spouse.” She led me to understand that couples interact on a social level sometimes just because being a spouse is enough common ground. Once that bond is broken the ties to that friendship become constant reminders of what you once had. The process of “friendloss” happens soon after the funeral. They just don’t know what to say. Pat put it this way, “Once the glue is gone, so is the friendship, we stay in touch, but I hardly ever just pal around with another couple.” She found herself leaving the culture of married parents and joining up with divorcees. ”I’m no old lady; I’m not going to sit around and knit sweaters in my rocking chair.” She laughed for the first time. It was evident that she was much more comfortable talking about her current life and not the one she wished she still had. After the funeral and paperwork she got on with her life. Pat has even started dating again. “My problem is that I don’t want a grey headed old man, or a god-forbid a bald guy, I want a young handsome and independently wealthy guy.” She says that the process of “moving-on” in other people’s minds is centered on re-marriage. She made it very clear that she has no intention of being married again. “I was married and my husband is dead.” Pat in no uncertain terms seems content to go out with friends and have fun. She wants to travel and enjoy life and a man is not a meaningful part of the equation. Watching her tell me this it seemed a little to neat and tidy. When she gave her response it made me feel uncomfortable, was marriage an unnecessary exercise?
In all of my research the overwhelming consensus leads me to believe that circumstances surrounding the death of a spouse greatly determine the way that the survivor copes. My next informant is 92 years old and lost her husband in the last years of WWII she has been a widow for over sixty years. Mildred was a young war widow raising three children on what little money the government provided in the form of social security survivor benefits. She is now working part time as an ambassador at McDonald’s just to make enough money to survive; eating at the restaurant because it’s free. She is alone.
I went to her home for our interview because of her advanced cataracts. She greeted me with a toothy grin and hug. Walking into her heavily decorated home I was transported to a different era. Cat hair blanketed everything in sight. “I hope you’re not allergic to cats, I have three, and they’re my babies.” I did not see a cat for the duration of our two hour interview. After the grand tour of the living room and photographs of her husband Carl, three children and many grandchildren etc. etc. we sat down and she put up her feet.
“So you want to know how and old lady gets by, huh?” She smiled with a kindness unlike most. “Well, Carl was killed on June, 7th 1944. Do you know what happened that day?” I was terrified. I hadn’t paid enough attention in all my history classes for this pop-quiz. She smiled big and bright. “Well nothing really.” She glowed with alertness and told me of how he had landed on the beaches of Normandy and survived the fight only to be killed by mortars the next day. “Well I wasn’t alone, most all of my friends had a husband in the war and we all had children at the time. We lived in a big house on Warwick and all the ladies would get together every week and bake for the women we knew who had lost a someone.” I was enthralled; she spoke with the nostalgic pride I associate with elderly people.
Millie’s hearing aid squawked and she squinted and turned it down. “Do you know what they charge for these silly things?” I shook my head and watched her pull out from a pile of papers an invoice. She pulled the paper to her face and handed it to me, the total read $4300. “And Medicare doesn’t cover a cent! I had to pay cash out of my savings!” They don’t cover hearing aids I asked, puzzled. “Well they pay for the exam. Just so the doctor can tell me I’m deaf (smiling) oh and that new doctor is so handsome!” I laughed with her and listened to her tell me about her hearing aids. I was struck by her in more ways than one. She was alone but got together to play gin with her friends several times a week. Millie was spunky and told me a few dirty jokes; she laughed and truly enjoyed the company. She reminded me several times of how handsome I was and I was embarrassed continually.
When I asked about her love life she laughed “I’ve got one?” She spoke with seriousness on the issue. “I raised my children, I dated a man twice in the sixties but we never got on past that.” Do you miss being married? “Not since soap opera’s” we laughed and I saw that she had transcended the desire.
The conversation never got too deep, she at times seemed emotionally fragile, as if at any moment she could cry. But, when I broached the subject of modern war widows she became very serious. “It’s damn shameful! They way we treat these poor boys over there. Everyday I watch the news and hardly anything about what’s going on.” I asked for clarification. “We used to all sit by the television and wait for the evening news to find out where our husbands were at, now it’s all so political.” I then asked how she feels about the way our government treats widows. And she was obviously disapproving, “I just can’t get my old brain around all these forms, everything has to be in writing and with my cataracts I can hardly see anyways.” I asked about finances. Millie let me know that she gets $855 dollars a month in survivor benefits and that that pays for her necessities. Her husband died in WWII and we only support her to within a couple hundred dollars of the poverty line.
Widowhood in the United States has undertaken a revolution in the last one hundred years. The advent of modern medicine and workers protection husbands too are living into their “golden years.” In the 19th century a woman was far more likely to lose her husband in an accident at work or to disease than she is today. Modern medicine has also increased the length of life in women and in most circumstances women live longer than men. This has increased the strain on social welfare programs and widows are four times more likely to live below the poverty line than married elderly women. This epidemic has only been exacerbated by the baby boom generation.
This Cultural Revolution has also encountered internal struggle concerning the ideals of an older generation governing the emotions of younger widows. The shift is evident in my youngest informant’s story. Kate is 42, widowed a now nearly a year. She lives her life in modern comforts; a business executive she brings in 40 times as much money a year as Millie. We met for appetizers at a posh downtown restaurant; she was wearing a designer suit and carried a flashy handbag. She was polished, her appearance was so put together I began to wonder if would be as forthright as my other informants. She ordered her drink and I mine. I began with the same question, “Tell me about your husband.”
Kate was a cancer widow. Her husband Paul had been a runner, in great physical form. He ate right and never carried an extra pound. Paul didn’t drink and never smoked a cigarette. Paul lived four months after they found the cancer in his pancreas. Kate is the mother of two; both children are in high school. She maintained her composure even though the wounds are fresh. Kate looked directly at me while she told me the details, she didn’t notice the server, didn’t touch her drink. I simply listened to every word, to every painful detail of his illness and ultimate death and funeral. “How are the children?” I said as evenly as possible. “They’re angry at me. They’re angry at the doctors. My son wanted me to sue the doctors for malpractice.” Paul had received a full physical five months before he was diagnosed.
I could tell the moment I saw Kate that she was different than Pat and worlds apart from Millie. She talked differently than they did. She was most certainly still mourning, calmly bitter and angry at God. “I just could not understand why he had to die. I’m not stupid, people die every day, but Paul was different.” She too receives social security and so does her children. Her life is not governed by this monthly stipend just augmented. Kate has a network of associates and close personal girlfriends that she gets together with several times a month. I asked her if she feels those friendships are strained by the fact that her husband died. “I can tell that it makes them uncomfortable… the realization that their husbands too could get sick and die.” Does this cause friction? “Yeah, they can’t understand… they try, but they just can’t grasp the enormity of the situation.” Kate is young and the community of widows her age is small and fragmented. I asked her if she had any friends that were also widows. “Not really… well online.”
The new social gathering point for widows is weblogs or blogs for short; they also congregate in chat rooms and post to each other via email and message boards. It’s a new trend this cyber community, but it makes sense, millions of people from around the country have access to innumerable resources all online. While absent of human interaction these resources are important to modern widows. The web opens lines of communication to other women in similar circumstances that might not have otherwise met. The .com widows have a community– a culture; they provide support and stability for active young women with no interest in playing canasta and sharing there feelings.
Kate is a complex and interesting person still struggling with her husbands passing. She told me about an interesting backlash to her desire to “move on.” Just recently she began to post ads on dating websites and even began dating a single father in her part of town. When she brought her “boyfriend” to her church one Sunday she was treated as if she was committing adultery. Later, she was asked by a deacon in her church not to come back. “They all loved Paul, and I think they were unable to accept that he was gone. They treated me like I should still be sitting at home crying for him… They didn’t understand that I still love Paul but the greatest disservice I could have ever done by him is not trying to find love again.”
Widowhood is not a death sentence. The process of mourning and the choice to get on with the business of life happens. The impacts of death on a spouse are inconceivable to those that have not experienced the process themselves. My work has hopefully shed light on the social and financial challenges and triumphs of these incredible women and their children. No one person or group of people can decide for a widow how to deal. The coping process can take years, or in Millie’s case decades. When a community of people is forced into a subculture not by choice but by circumstance interesting processes emerge. Rules that are easily written are just as easily broken. Conflicts emerge as society as a whole changes and the subculture evolves. From Millie’s weekly baking sessions, to Pats night out with the girls and finally to Kate’s web life the culture of widows is suiting the times and adjusting to the individual members of the culture of the American widow.
Copyright 2008 Josh Hollingsworth. May not be reproduced in part or whole without the written consent of the author.