Widowhood: The Experience of Widows and Widowers

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 1:02 Expectations & Statistics
  • 3:53 Widowhood Effect
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

Here we examine what it means to be a widow or widower, as well as some of the statistics of how common it is. We finish off by looking at the occasionally mentioned 'widowhood effect.'

Widowhood: Definition

The unfortunate side of a relationship is that one person in the relationship is likely to die before the other one. There are exceptions of freak accidents that take both people simultaneously. To be honest, I'm not sure which is better. On one hand, if both people in the relationship die, then it is twice as sad simultaneously. If one dies, then the other is left widowed.

Widowhood is the state of an individual whose spouse has died and who has not remarried. Women are called widows and men are called widowers. To me, it seems like 'Widow' would be a good enough term for both, but we have two instead. From a little bit of digging, it seemed that the origin goes back to legal terminology. And we all know how legal documents are.

There are a lot of assumptions, lay knowledge and beliefs about widowhood that cover a wide spectrum. We won't have time to address all of them, but we will look at some of the facts as they are.

Expectations and Statistics

Nobody willingly wants to be a widow, except those few crazy people who are doing it for the money or some other crazy reason. Most people don't want to be a widow. But it is an unfortunate reality. According to a 2009 marital census (reported in 2011), for every 1,000 men and women over the age of 15, there are 3.5 widows/widowers. That's about a third of a percent of the population, which is relatively small when you think about it. In comparison, the rate of divorce is 9.5 people out of a thousand. So, there are three times as many divorcees as widowed people.

When it comes to expecting widowhood, Carr, Nesse and Wortman in 2006 found that one-third of people had six months or more of warning of impending death, about one-third had less than six months of warning and about one-third had no warning at all. The average time of warning was about five to six months.

As an interesting side fact, according to the 2009 census information, Wyoming had the highest number of widowed individuals, with 5.9 per 1,000 being widowed. But besides living in that state, the greatest risk factor for being widowed is age. The census describes how 9% of the population between 45 and 54 are widowed. This number moves up to 16% for people 55 to 64, with slightly more women than men being widowed. After the age of 65, an average of 68% of the population is widowed.

The proportions indicate that men are widowed more than women, but I think that is playing with the stats a little too much. Women are likely to live longer than men, meaning that there are more of them in old age. So, saying 70% of men over 65 is actually a smaller number than 66% of women over the age of 65.

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