Widower Responses to the Death of a Wife: The Impact on Family Members

Patricia N. Rushton, RN, PhD


Topics in Advanced Practice Nursing eJournal. 2007;7(2) 

In This Article


Anecdotal reports by surviving adult children suggest that following the deaths of their wives, widowers sometimes behave in ways considered contrary to the best interests of both the widower and his children. Some widowers have estranged themselves from their adult children through long absences or legal actions, remarried within months or days after the deaths of their wives, remarried younger women, excluded their adult children from premarital discussions or postmarriage life, spent large sums of money with little regard to available resources or resources needed in the future, broken the law and faced the consequences in court, ceased activity in professed religions, and/or participated in activities opposed by espoused faiths.

Much previous literature has examined the dynamics of widower remarriage. No studies have examined the bereavement patterns and lived experiences of widowers. Interviewing widowers and close family members will provide insight into the bereavement patterns and coping behaviors of widowers.

Most research concerning widower grief involved women as primary participants or did not separate spousal grief responses according to gender. Previous investigators commented that men were not treated as a minority group and that aging robs men of status and power. Additional research on men's bereavement experience is needed.[2]

Adverse effects of spousal death among widowers include difficulty managing domestic matters previously managed by wives and problems socially connecting to relatives, neighbors, and friends. A retired widower may find the loss of social contact with coworkers combined with loss of social connections and companionship brought on by his wife's death overwhelmingly stressful.[3,4]

Conflicted marriage relationships complicate spousal grieving. The greater the complexity of the relationship with the loved one, the more intense the grief may be.[5]

Remarriage in widowers has been explored in several studies. In a study of 25 men, none of the men remarried during the first year of widowhood.[2] Another study similarly reported that fewer than 50% of their subjects remarried and that men with high levels of social support were no more likely than women to report interest in repartnering.[6] However, one researcher suggested that for widowers, early remarriage was an extreme form of "taking time off from grieving, and involving themselves in practical activities that help return their lives to some sense of normal routine."[7]

Recovery facilitators include family, religion and afterlife beliefs, friends, talking about the death, and an ability to function. For a surviving spouse, "others" (such as children) were able to fill a social void and provide comfort by offering companionship.[8] However, some sources of support may not be helpful because they are also grieving.[9]

Research concerning the effect of widower grief behavior on adult children is limited. Oldest daughters often assume the role of the deceased mother.[10] A daughter's grief for the loss of her mother may be more difficult if her father remarries quickly. Remarriage alters the original family unit, the home, and the memory of the mother, which is no longer intact. This may change the daughter's ability to adequately grieve for her mother.[11]

Fathers may be preoccupied with their own needs and unaware of their children's needs. Fathers may also be unaware of the conflict between their needs and the needs of their children. When widowers considered dating and remarriage, they saw no conflict between time spent away from children or their choice of a new partner and their children's needs.[12] However, widowers responsible for dependent children had no time to devote to dating because of the demands of child care. Prospective partners for a second marriage were hesitant to commit to a serious relationship because of unwillingness to shoulder further parenting responsibilities.[2]


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