I’ve previously written about gay spousal bereavement (https://ageingissues.wordpress.com/2013/05/09/gay-partner-bereavement/). But, in fact, I’ve been studying late life widowhood and bereavement more generally for over twenty years (http://www.liv.ac.uk/~kmb/pubs.html). I originally began researching this area because I was interested in women’s issues in ageing. The strange thing is that whilst I started off being interested in women, I became as interested in widowhood amongst men. As someone interested in diversity and minority issues, the minority group in this case are the widowers. 65% of women over the age of 75 are widowed, but by only approximately a third of men. Why is this? Men die sooner than women and often marry women younger than themselves. Further, of those men who become widowed some remarry (a small proportion, but a greater proportion than women).
The study of bereavement and widowhood in later life is often seen as a niche area of research. It’s not a popular research area, especially in psychology. Why should this be the case? I think in part it stems from the taboo nature of death and dying. As the widows and widowers in my studies comment, people think death is catching; and people don’t wanted to be reminded of their own, and their loved ones’ mortality. It’s not, on the whole, a cheerful subject either – although there are positive experiences too. And yet, almost all of us should be interested in the topic, as lay people, as academics, as policy makers and practitioners. Many of us will become widowed, our parents are also likely to become widowed and almost of all of us will be bereaved, whether it be our spouses, parents, children, friends. We can learn lessons about bereavement more generally from studies of widowhood. Those of us interested in generally need to be interested in bereavement and widowhood because the majority of older people will be widowed and will be bereaved. In ignoring these life experiences we will not be serving older people well. It is not that, for the most part, bereavement requires clinical intervention, rather it influences older people’s everyday experiences.
Many of the experiences of widowed older people do not differ between men and women. Both men and women miss their spouses, find life without their spouse challenging, and the majority cope well enough, and some are resilient. However, an interesting difference arises in the ways in which men and women talk about the events that led up to the death of their husband or wife. Women’s death narratives focus on goodbyes, on the emotional impact of the death and on (un)expectedness, and place, of death (Bennett & Vidal-Hall, 2000: http://www.liv.ac.uk/~kmb/pubs.html). On the other hand men talk about the deaths in a way which enables them to show themselves as men. They use masculine speech. They describe how they protected their wives, how took action. They speak factually about the events: reporting the time and date of death. And when they are unable to save their wives they invoke destiny. The men also speak of how they blame themselves for their wives deaths, even though they are not blame (van den Hoonard, Bennett & Evans, 2013; http://www.liv.ac.uk/~kmb/pubs.html). However, one thing that is clear for both men and women, is that the narrative of death is important, both as a means of not forgetting the death of their spouse, and as a means of sharing their experiences with others. They are accounts which need to be told and need to be listened to. Carrying out this research has taught me the importance of listening, and the importance of not shying away from people’s distress at the loss of their loved ones.
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