The paper is one of several being given by researchers in the 'Growing Older' Research Programme funded by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC).
There are more than 2.5 million widowed women aged 65 and over in Britain (and half a million men). The change undergone by older women who are widowed is characterised by three stages: the bonds with the former status of married women which continue; the passage of time; and finally personal growth.
The researchers interviewed women between 55 and 95 years of age who had been widowed for varying periods. They found most widows reported a deep sense of loss following the deaths of their husbands which they often described in terms of the loss of limbs. Most women saw their identity, in part, as a wife, part of a couple or a family.
The transition towards a 'woman alone' is marked partly by the disposal of important possessions of the husband although most keep something like a dressing gown or a watch. Over time, personal growth brings a new sense of confidence and self-sufficiency. Women join new clubs, take up new hobbies, and start voluntary work. One woman, who had never travelled on her own, had been all over the world since her husband died. "I go for a walk and I think, why should I be cleaning?" said another woman.
The researchers emphasise that the identity of most widowed women, even after years of widowhood, is still wrapped up with that of a married woman. This is a consequence of the continuing bond with the deceased, the importance of having been married, and the status of marriage in Western society. But they conclude: "what we believe happens is that their personal identity has grown to encompass that of
Contact: Iain Stewart
Economic & Social Research Council