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


During analysis, information was divided into the following 5 common themes:

  1. Factors that assisted the widower in dealing with the loss of his spouse

  2. Saying goodbye to the deceased wife

  3. Losses

  4. Remarriage

  5. Relationships with children

Widowers' membership in their established religions was instrumental in the widowers' coping with their wives' deaths. Membership, understanding of, and faith in stated doctrines provided hope. Participants indicated that their faith had been strengthened throughout the coping period by the love they felt from family, friends, other church members, and a supreme being. Continuing in regular church activities brought normality and purpose to their lives during the grieving period. Widowers and children also reported feeling the presence of deceased wives/mothers as they made funeral arrangements and made personal and family life decisions.

Being alone after a wife's death was difficult. Eleven of the 14 widowers were still working at the time of their wife's death. Six of these men returned to work almost immediately. Several reported that though they made an effort to be functional in their jobs, much time was spent thinking about their spouse. However, they reported that being at work was better than being at home. Colleagues in the work place were seen as a strong source of support.

Widowers combated loneliness in a number of ways. Four lived with family; 3 of these were families with young children. One moved in with children and became the care receiver. Three widowers took their families on trips. One widower traveled with his children at their invitation. One widower spent time with his own siblings and visiting his children. One regularly took his children to lunch. Two attended grief groups with children. One widower talked of the support he received from a long-time best friend. Another widower noted that it is difficult to talk to male friends about the grief experience. These groups overlapped in that widowers may have used more than one method to combat loneliness.

Although I had some good male friends, I just didn't feel like I could go over and say, "Let's have a piece of cake and a good cry." It is hard to go to someone's house and say "I really need to talk about the death of my wife." You know, guys just don't do that. So, I ended up working out a lot of things on my own.

Among the activities that assisted in grieving were the development of new interests and hobbies. Some of these activities included building a loom and learning to weave, participating in local theater productions, teaching English, attending grief groups, reading books about death and grief, and joining a gym. Playing computer games required little concentration and helped ward off loneliness.

Maintaining a regular work schedule or a calendar of anticipated events helps to maintain normality and some excitement in one's life. The widowers in this study found work to do such as regularly scheduled salaried work and church work. They became involved in family work, spent more time with children individually and in a group, and performed housework, home remodeling, meal preparation, and child care for dependent children. Fathers with disabled children became more involved caregivers than they had been previously.

The widowers had difficulty expressing their grief outwardly. Emotions associated with their losses were expressed in isolation. Loneliness was the most common feeling experienced by the widowers. They found this emotion to be nearly all-consuming when not with family or work colleagues. One adult child commented about her father:

After my mother passed away, he was very shut down, almost dark and extremely depressed. He put a big front for the family, for his parents and my mom's family. As soon as the funeral was over, he was left alone. He literally couldn't work. He shut himself in the bedroom for days at a time. He wouldn't eat.

A widower described his feelings of loneliness and pain:

I remember lying in bed and just doubling up in pain as though I had glass in my stomach. You know, broken glass, and it was intensely physically painful.

Participants discussed the demonstration of grief through crying. Widowers cried at funerals and when talking about their wives. Children knew their fathers were crying in private, often at night, thinking no one would notice. Both stated that widowers tried to remain "strong" when in public, crying infrequently in front of family members. Widowers seemed to think this would be helpful to their children.

Other responses were the inability to think or talk about the deceased wife and to avoid every family event reproducing memories of deceased wife. The widower had difficulty defining himself after the death of his wife and difficulty making decisions. One widower expressed that he was too distressed to take on his children's grief as well as his own.

Participants reported some measures that were helpful to them in dealing with their grief. It was helpful for friends, family, and associates to be patient while the widower worked through his grief and not expect the grief to be resolved in a finite period of time. Some widowers asked for physical and emotional assistance. One widower noted that men are not "naturally chatty" and do not ask for help easily. He was also aware that people have lives of their own and cannot always be as supportive as they wish because of their own time and financial and emotional commitments. Knowing another grieving widower was also helpful.

Widowers with dependent children suggested it would have been helpful to have someone else talk to their children about their mother's death and normal stages of growing up, as their mother would have done. The widower's grieving left him little energy to do this. It was felt that this was particularly important for surviving daughters.

Widowers wanted to be able to have some space away from their children to do something they enjoyed. They also wanted to be able to make their own decisions about surviving children. One widower commented:

Friends and relatives wanted to make decisions for me and be more in charge. I wasn't ready for that. I didn't want to give up my ability to be in charge of what was happening to my children.

Widowers had varying experiences with saying goodbye. Three of the 14 wives died suddenly. Two more wives, though they had suffered from chronic diseases, died unexpectedly; thus, 5 widowers did not have the opportunity to say goodbye to their spouses. Five other wives died from the effects of their diseases, but imminently, as a result of a medical crisis that caused them to die within a few days. Two of these widowers felt they did not have enough time to work through an adequate farewell. Four widowers did have time to say goodbye, due to the chronic nature of their wives' diseases and their more gradual terminal phases.

Disposition of the deceased wife's belongings proceeded in various ways. Physical items given away were clothes and jewelry, most often the wife's wedding ring. In one case, the belongings were given away by the wife prior to her death. In another, children were encouraged to dispose of their mother's belongings immediately after her death or funeral. Sometimes widowers encouraged children to take items they wanted, or items were given to specific individuals. Sometimes the wife's belongings were given away to people other than the children without any prior discussion. Items were given away by the widower, who either forgot that he gave them away or remembered that he had given them away, but in both cases wanted them back. These last 2 scenarios were very distressing to the children. The widower was seen as forgetful and unable to manage his affairs or insensitive to the needs of the children to keep items of their mother's.

Widowers performed various acts to remember their wives. The most common of these acts was continuing to wear a wedding ring. Funerals were celebrations of the lives of their deceased wives. Many widowers kept their wives' belongings as memorials in their homes. The gravesite was often a place to memorialize the life and death of a wife; at least one widower visited his wife's grave daily for over 3 years.

Losses in addition to their wives were often encountered. The husband not only lost his wife, but his children's mother. Widowers became concerned when children became ill, fearing the death of the child. Both widowers and children indicated that the widowers remarried younger women to ensure that another wife would not die before the widower died. Widowers lost children when their children moved out to marry, go to school, or work.

Some widowers had changes in physical health. Some became more robust and active, trying to find a new wife. Others declined in physical health, becoming depressed, less self-confident, and more sedentary in lifestyle. Some became forgetful or had difficulty concentrating. They forgot to whom they had given their wife's belongings and neglected such events as their children's birthdays.

Long-time homes were lost through sales, often without consulting other family members. Lost jobs, church, or volunteer positions further eroded normality in widowers' lives. One widower simply left his work to his assistants to pursue a second marriage and was eventually relieved of his responsibilities. Two widowers stopped working and never worked again.

Remarriage was the most common and controversial theme dealt with by widowers and their children. Generally, widowers and children perceived widower behavior in the same way. However, when it came to remarriage, significant differences arose in how widower behavior was perceived.

Five widowers remained single at the time of the study. Three of these lived independently of their children. Three of the 5 had not remarried due to a love for their first wife that would not allow them to search out and commit to another woman. One of the remaining looked for a second wife but was not able to find one he could commit to sufficiently. All 5 maintained their patriarchal role in the family organization. Nine of the 14 did remarry.

Factors contributing to a desire to remarry included perceptions of loneliness, unhappiness, depression, sadness, and the need for a mother for their children. Widowers perceived the need for friendship, companionship, adult interaction, and the need for the love of a woman. One widower described his experience:

It was 2 years before I began going to some single dances. I felt obligated to go. I felt I needed somebody to help with the children. The biggest thing is that I don't like to be alone. I like companionship, the love of a woman. Unfortunately, as much as the children tried, and I know they tried, but it is not something they can provide. It is a totally different kind of a relationship.

One adult child noted:

So many widowers get married right away because they can't be alone. They don't know how to be alone. They don't know how to take care of themselves. That's not how he is. He's plenty capable, but he didn't like it. And he was lonely.

One widower said his first love was very good. He wanted to feel that again. One widower reported that he and his first wife had grown in their spiritual relationship. He wanted to find someone with whom he could continue to grow spiritually.

There were some barriers to remarriage, such as not wanting to or not having enough confidence to date again. There were concerns regarding children from 2 separate families getting along in the new blended family. Those with dependent or disabled children found they were busy taking care of the children or that having children was a deterrent to marriage prospects. One widower with dependent children stated:

I did all the things that needed to be done around the home. I did all the cooking and food planning. I supported the children in all their school and church activities. It was a stressful time to do double duty like that, but I was very committed that my children would be raised the very best that I could raise them.

His child commented:

He tried to remember all the things that we were involved with, though there have been several times when one of us would come home and he hadn't been to their concert or their activity. He just forgets. It just breaks his heart.

The approval of the first wife concerning remarriage was an area of discussion for widowers and children. Some husbands and wives had discussed remarriage. In one case, the children remembered their mother saying she did not want her husband to remarry. The widower thought she had agreed to a remarriage. One widower discussed with his wife that if either one of them died, the other would seek a new partner. Upon her death, he immediately began looking for a new wife.

Various methods were involved in finding a second wife. A relationship with a certain woman may have begun because she had been supportive to the deceased wife or to the widower in his loss. One widower was introduced to the marriage prospect by his children. One read books on dating. Another went to various church dating Internet sites. Some widowers made efforts to change their appearance to be more physically attractive to women, such as dying their hair, having cosmetic surgery, or getting very small hearing aids. All widowers who remarried chose younger, active, attractive, and healthy women.

Children hoped that the new wife would somehow heal their family and be good for the children and grandchildren. They felt it was their father's responsibility to maintain family ties and lines of communication between family members. Neither of these expectations was easily achieved.

Most children involved in this study were amazed, shocked, and appalled at the rapidity with which their fathers began to pursue remarriage. Some of the widowers began the day of their wives' funerals. One adult child recounted this experience:

My mother had been gone 8 hours. We'd just finished making funeral arrangements. My dad commented that he didn't know what to do. He said, "What happens if there is another wife? What happens to her?" You just don't talk about stuff like that when your mom hasn't been gone for half a day. That's not the kind of thing you say to a child on the day that your wife dies."

Two daughters mentioned that their father asked at their mother's funeral if it was too soon to start dating. One of them commented:

He wasn't dysfunctional or depressed. It was almost the opposite. He did not seem to hardly grieve at all. We were on the way back from my mother's burial and my Dad said something about getting married again. That's the first time it had even crossed my mind, but as soon as he said that, I knew he would.

Widowers attended group activities and rapidly progressed to dating. Some widowers determined that they would not date for at least a year after their wives' deaths, and some indeed had no dating activities for that year. However, some went to the group activities clearly looking for new wives within the year's time. One widower began to look for a new wife immediately, taking long trips to different locations, even overseas, where he thought he would find groups of women of his own faith, leaving his minor children home alone or in the care of friends. He explained:

I thought it was important to get to know the parents of the woman I was considering marrying. Acting very impulsively, one weekend I flew down outside of the United States without telling my child. I called from the city where I went to get my passport. I left my 15-year-old child in the lurch. The child was certainly able to be independent, but I flew off, literally, in such an impetuous way that my child was really angry with me. I was acting irrationally.

The adult child commented:

There was a message on the answering machine from my father to me. He was calling from the federal building where he had gone to get a passport. He was flying to visit the parents of the woman he was courting. He said, "I will be gone for about a week. Take care of yourself." I was in shock. I was 15. I had no driver's license. I had no money, no cash. I wasn't expected to have cash available. I was a cosigner on the checking account because my Dad said, "Well, you can help with the bills by writing the checks." But I couldn't get to the bank. There was very little food in the fridge. It was like, "okay?"

Most widowers did not include their children in any discussions about the women they planned to marry. Children perceived that their mothers were being replaced. When it was discussed, the children might say openly that remarriage was okay, but privately were rarely happy with their fathers' choices. Candidates were too much like their mothers, or not enough like their mothers: too tall, too short, too young; they were "gold diggers," or just after their inheritances. A widower commented:

After a year, I started dating. That was hard for the kids, for them and their suffering. It was almost like, "Dad is not being true to Mom. How can you really have loved Mom if you can love someone else, too?" I know that is a normal response. I think my children knew it was a normal response, but that didn't make it any easier. It was okay for someone else, but it wasn't okay for their dad. My daughter said, "I know you need to marry, but not this one. Marry someone else."

Children felt their fathers were more loyal to their new wives than their former ones. They felt their fathers had betrayed their mothers for the next wives. An adult child stated:

I just didn't want someone else in the same place as my Mom. I felt like he was pushing my Mom out. It had been 3 and a half years since my Mom passed away. It was hard because he wouldn't really talk about it. She made it clear that she wasn't there to be my Mom but to help us out. She really can't fill the place of my Mom, and I don't want her to.

Children reported their fathers' behavior seemed to change with the new courtship and marriage. Though fathers had been firm about their children being home from dates at a certain time or not watching certain types of movies, these rules didn't seem to apply to the fathers when they began dating, although the children thought they should. One adult child commented:

We perceived the rules as not age defined, but he perceived that the rules only applied to younger people. He stayed out as late as he wanted. He took unsupervised trips. I don't think he did anything really wrong, but we thought that even as an older adult, you shouldn't really be doing that.

Men who had never argued with their previous wives were found to be argumentative at times with their new wives. Some widowers brought their new wives into their current homes. Others moved into their new wives' homes. Some bought new homes when they remarried.

Children noted that men who had been caregivers to their previous wives continued to find roles as caregivers. Two widowers became the primary care providers for handicapped children.

Some interesting comments were made by some of the participants. A son commented about his father:

Unmarried men are weird. Two or 3 years after the death of my mother, I would have said "no" to his remarriage just because I don't want to see another woman. But now, I wish there was someone there who could say, "No, that's a bad idea."

One widower said that every man should be married and that there was no reason for any man who wanted to be married to stay unmarried. Another widower made the interesting observation that people wanted widowers to wait to get remarried, but there was no definite time that they should wait. Another widower noted that he felt that every husband and wife should make up a new team, leaving the first wife behind. One participant noted that it is very difficult for children who are still grieving to accept someone new into their circle, such as a new wife.

Daughters often took the place of the deceased wife and mother, in the social or confidante sense. Daughters simply assumed this role; they were not usually prepared for this role by their dying mothers or their fathers. They did the grocery shopping and were given access to funds that they would not normally have had as a dependent child. They took siblings to and from appointments and got siblings off to school. Some daughters continued in this role even after moving out of the family home.

Daughters became emotionally closer to their fathers. They made decisions for their fathers. They were close enough to their fathers to identify emotions such as loneliness. Father and daughter sometimes became emotionally dependent on each other. One father even discouraged his daughter from marrying or leaving home. Another daughter became the caregiver for her elderly parent.

Children often felt abandoned by their fathers as a result of their fathers' inabilities to cope with the losses of their wives. One adult child told of an experience:

I had to move away to college and he wanted to travel. He went away during the weekend that I moved to school. I moved by myself. It was hard because I saw all these other incoming freshmen that had their parents around and that stayed for maybe all week making sure that everybody was settled.

Another adult child commented:

I was working and I couldn't get off until after the buses had stopped. I called my dad and asked him to pick me up from work. He said that if I didn't catch the bus, he wouldn't come and pick me up. I felt abandoned. He probably knew that I was upset, but probably didn't think my feelings were either valid or he was thinking that I was being an overemotional teenager. I didn't get home that night. I stayed with a friend, partly just to make my dad mad because he wouldn't pick me up.

Another commented on an experience of rejection:

My Dad decided to go camping. He got in the car and just drove and drove. We don't really know where he went. He was gone for 2 or 3 weeks. We didn't know where he was. He did tell us he was going, which he doesn't always do. One time, he called my brother from the airport to tell us he was on his way to London. He was in England about 3 weeks. That was the first that we heard that he was going, from the airport when he said, "I'm out of here."

Daughters who had assumed social partner or mother roles felt abandoned when their fathers remarried. They were emotionally devastated when their fathers focused on new women and remarriage. They expressed such emotions as betrayal, rejection, "being used," being ignored until "acting out" created problems too big to ignore, and a sense of physical abandonment in everyday living. One daughter stated:

I felt used. I was the person he confided all the things that were going on in his personal life and at work and his thoughts and feelings. We'd do things together. We had a lot in common. We enjoyed a wide variety of interests together and we just had a great time together. I had gotten to know my dad in a way I never had. Then all of a sudden I felt like he had used me and dumped me.

Another daughter commented:

I felt kind of lost when they started dating. I knew that if they did get married that I wouldn't know what my position would be. I was so used to being like the mom; being in charge of the groceries and the housecleaning and taking care of all the mom stuff. I knew that if they did get together, I wouldn't be doing that stuff, and I didn't know what I would do. I couldn't put it in words.

Some daughters felt forced to choose between the new wife and rejection or separation from their family. One daughter recalled being told, "Look you've got to understand. If you force my position between you and my wife, there is no position."

From a positive standpoint, some concepts were generally agreed upon by both fathers and children. Some fathers put forth extra effort to spend time with their children. They tried to attend their children's activities. Fathers were not aware that their children were so angry about the deaths of their mothers and their remarriages.

Children noted that fathers were too busy trying to make ends meet financially and had too little time to take note of their children's emotions. It is also possible that they may not have had the strength to manage their own grief and that of their children simultaneously. One child who was still living at home was asked to be the mediator between the father and other siblings.


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