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Widow  , by Lynn Caine, is a must read for people working with bereaved families. Although it is a relatively old book, I think that much of the advice given is just as accurate and appropriate today as it was in the 1970's, and it gives a very personal perspective to facing the death of a spouse. Some points from the book (which are reinforced in your textbook)

•There are stages of grief. For widows, the first stage is often the "Recoil" phase, where there is a feeling of numbness, as in going through a fog.

•The best advice one can give a widow is to DO NOTHING. I think all of my courses in psychology were worth it, if for no other reason than that I knew and followed this advice when my husband died. There are a couple of interrelated reasons why this is the best advice in the world.

 - First, as Holmes and Rahe (two noted stress researchers) have found, stress is multiplicative, not additive. (So, if you have three stressful events, it is not three times as stressful as one but eight times as stressful). Of course, this is not a perfect equation like that example, the point is, having multiple stressful events occur simultaneously is worse than having each one occur separately. The most stressful event in their rating scale is the death of a spouse. Generally, there are other stressful events occurring at the same time, such as a significant change in income, financial problems, possibly the necessity to move due to being unable to afford the house, etc. Excessive stress is related to physical and mental health problems. Given the fact that one has just suffered the single most stressful life event, and usually a couple of other significant, major stressors along with it, it only makes sense to avoid taking on any more. Do NOT sell the house if you don’t have to, do NOT move to Detroit, do NOT quit your job, etc etc.

I think one of the things I did correctly at this point (and Caine did not) was not to make any major changes in my life. For the first year, I stayed at my same job, living in my same home, with my children attending the same schools. I had been thinking about moving back to California, and we spent six weeks there in the summer to see how well we liked it. The next year, I sold the house, in preparation for eventually  moving back to California, but we stayed living in the same town, at my same job, etc. Two years after Ron's death, we moved back to California.

 -Second, there is the unpleasant and often unacknowledged fact that Lynn Caine points to in her book, which is that there is a certain amount of craziness when a spouse dies. I can certainly relate to this part of it, especially where she talks about feeling as if she was handling everything totally calmly and yet doing things that were completely crazy. For example, Caine moved to the suburbs and bought a house, even though she couldn't drive and worked in New York. She wrote a politician she had met once and asked for a half million dollars. When a person is under the most stress of her life is probably not the best time for rational decisionmaking.

Well, I didn't do anything that far out, but I did work three jobs for a long time, often leaving my children off at school at 8 a.m. and not getting home until 10:00 p.m. When I look  back on those days, I feel very thankful that my children have developed as well as they have.

Widows and the Family Farm
What happens after to the farmer's wife after the farmer dies?
Sharon Price, Christine Price & Hillary Rose presented their research on this relatively understudied issue at the National Council on Family Relations conference in 1998. Since women outlive men, it is not too surprising that around 60% of land in agricultural counties may be owned by women. (Still, it surprised me because I had not given it much thought before.)

Some interesting findings from Price et al.'s research were:

Most of these farm widows had similar experiences, despite the fact that they differed in age, size of farms, how long the farm had been in the family and how long they had been widowed.
 Unlike their late husbands, they looked at farmwork and housework as pretty much all of the same thing. Feeding chickens, gardening, etc. was all part of the same domestic sphere.
All of the women reported that their husband’s loss was not just a loss of companionship, but also of knowledge about the farm. All reported difficulty making decisions about the farm at first and difficulty getting information about farm operation. All said that the agribusiness community was not supportive. They also mentioned great stress following his death, and a lack of social support, no longer being invited to activities as they were not part of a couple.
Most women increased their involvement with the farm after their husband’s death and stayed involved. They may not have done the physical labor, but they were involved as business managers, partners, bookkeepers, and, sometimes as laborers (when their health allowed, this was primarily an older sample).

 I would add that I found a similar situation as far as lack of support in society in general. Although some people were WONDERFUL, the general reaction to widows from my experience ranged from indifferent to viewing this as an opportunity for financial advantage.  Attitudes seemed to range from "Okay, your husband died, so?" to, "I am sorry your husband died, I am sure you want a new car so your children will be safe, as that must be a big concern. How about this eight-year-old car for $10,000?" Also, during the first month after my husband died, I received several offers for sex from married men, and one woman. (The single men waited a few months. The first one I dated mentioned that he had been hesitant to ask me out, since he had never known a 'young' widow before and was not sure what the appropriate length of time to wait was. I have no idea what the married men were thinking, as I let them know in no uncertain terms what my opinion was of them, and that was the end of THAT!)

It was also my experience that the people I knew on the reservation were significantly MORE understanding. No one pretended that my husband had never existed. Some of the people who knew both me and my husband held a ceremony with an honor song to recognize him. This meant more to me and my children than I think anyone realized. The star quilt we received from that is one of my daughters' most treasured possessions. I wonder if this is because, as was discussed in the earlier web page on children and death, that death is more common on the reservation, or if it is some cultural difference. I don't know. I did think it was worth mentioning the observation, though.


Barbara Hillyer talks about grief a lot in her book, Feminism and disability. Some of it is about the grief we experience when a child or spouse dies, but other parts of the book discuss the grief we feel when a person has an illness or disability.

She makes two VERY important points, in my opinion.

  • One is that our society does not give people adequate time and support to grieve. We value independence, productivity, making money or building bridges or getting people off welfare - all that stuff. As she says, Americans have this view of life sort of like buckets going down an assembly line, and as they go they get filled up with the the stuff we do. If you really do a lot - make a lot of money, teach high school for 40 years, etc. - then you have a really  big bucket, and that is good.  If you do a lot of creative things and/or good deeds, then your bucket is filled with good stuff and that is even better. We talk about those people as having lived a productive, good life.

Nowhere in this picture is there room for a person to just sit down and cry.  We give people relatively little time off for funerals, a week or so at the most. Then they are supposed to “get over it” and get back to work.

I admit it, without any shame at all. After my husband first died, I sat in my living room and cried, and told my sister,

"I can’t do it. I cannot go on. I cannot take care of three kids all by myself. I loved him and my husband died. I just can’t do it."

She said,

“Of course you can, you are the strongest person I know. You won the world championships. You got a Ph.D. And you can do this, too. Besides, you have no choice. I am not going to take care of them for you and mom’s not either.”

Actually, we both knew quite well that my sister WOULD have taken my children if I couldn’t care for them. However, what she did NOT do was deny my feelings, tell me to get over it, tell me it wasn’t as bad as all that.”

Hillyer says that a bad thing we do to grieving people (especially mothers, since it is their job to be concerned about other people’s feelings) is to tell them to deny their feelings.

In a letter to one of her friends, whose father had just died, my then ten-year-old daughter wrote:

“I am very sorry to hear about your dad. I really know how you feel. Adults will tell you that you will get over it after a while but you never get over it. You will feel better though.”
So, that is one important point that Hillyer makes, our society does not encourage people to take time to grieve.

When my husband died, the administration at the college where I was teaching WAS very good about telling me to take as much time as I needed, a whole semester if necessary. I thanked them, but went back to work right away. The next two years were very hard on my family, with behavior problems, financial problems and just about everything you can think of. Would we have been better off if I had taken a month or two or three off with my family and done what thanatologists call “grief work”? I don’t know. I do know that I would have felt totally unprepared for anything like that.

  • A second very important point she makes has to do with the importance of storytelling. We do this for a short period at funerals, but Hillyer says we should do it over and over.

As I mentioned above, a while after my husband died, I was at Cankdeska Cikana Community College and there was a ceremony for him. I was presented a quilt (for wiping away the tears), and there was an honor song for him and some people spoke about knowing him. It was a very important event for my daughters and I because, in general, after Ron had died, people rarely spoke of him. In a sense, it is as if people experience two losses, the actual loss and the loss of the memory of that person. My younger daughter still sleeps with that quilt, which she refers to as "dad's quilt".

The other object that the girls treasure is a flag presented by the Veterans of Foreign Wars after their dad's funeral. What both of these things have in common was that they came from people in their dad's life - his work at Sioux Manufacturing and his service in the army - that helped them remember who he was.

A couple of weeks ago, we were in San Diego, where I met the girls' father, and all of us, including my (not-so-new-any-longer) husband and new baby, went to have dinner at a restaurant that used to be their father's favorite. We talked about how he used to like to sit there and look out at the lights on Coronado Island, and how we used to walk along the ocean. This is, I totally agree with Hillyer, a really important part of accepting a person's grief. You have to accept that the person who died was, and still is, important to them. Stories need to be told, not just of their death, but of the life that they lived.

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