June 24, 1999 Writer: Cathy Keen
Source: Felix Berardo, (352) 392-0265, email@example.com
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- The death of a spouse hurts deeply, but fewer taboos about dating and remarrying makes widowhood less of an ordeal than in the past, says a University of Florida researcher.
"When John Kennedy died, many people got mad when Jacqueline Kennedy started dating because they thought she should be a widow for a lot longer time," said Felix Berardo, a UF sociologist and expert on widowhood. "Today we're much more receptive to the notion that you have only one life to live, and if you marry someone else, it's great."
Despite the great numbers of widows and widowers, Berardo said, researchers do not know exactly how many people have lost a spouse. Even the U.S. Census fails to account for the large hidden group of people who remarry after losing their mate, he said.
Furthermore, little is known about men who lose their wives compared with women who lose their husbands, perhaps because widows outnumber widowers by more than 5-to-1, Berardo said. And because widowhood is so often associated with the elderly, the plight of younger people facing the predicament is not well understood, he said.
"They still have their whole lives in front of them," said Berardo, who is writing an article on widowhood for the new edition of the Encyclopedia of Sociology. "They may have children, which means there is a real economic problem, and it may interfere with dating. Their experiences and philosophical views, because of their generation, make their situation different."
Understanding the life changes that are part of widowhood is more important than ever as increasing numbers of people experience the phenomenon, Berardo said. The average life expectancy has grown from about 47 years at the turn of the century to just over 73 for males and just over 79 for females born today, increasing the odds that people will experience the loss of a spouse, he said.
What sociologists do understand about widowhood is that men are more likely to be socially isolated, less frequently in touch with children or church activities, Berardo said. "Women, we know, are much better at making friends and keeping friends," he said.
When Berardo began his pioneering study of widowed people who lived in a rural area of Washington state in 1967, widowhood was a neglected field of research. In his study, the women often moved to the city, while farmers would rough it out alone in the country, struggling to learn how to cook, wash and keep house.
Finances are the problem for females, particularly those who grew up with cultural expectations to be homemakers rather than have careers, Berardo said. "We've all heard the silly notion of the merry widow who inherits a large sum of money," he said. "It ain't true."
In the past, widows often were reluctant to remarry because they would lose their Social Security benefits, Berardo said.
"My mother's case was different," he said. "When my father died, she had 12 grown adult children. That was her Social Security. It didn't matter what the government was going to do, she knew she could count on us for anything she wanted. I'd get a call from my sister saying, ‘Mom needs a new refrigerator. Your share is 40 bucks.'"
Regardless of finances, Berardo recommends that widows not move for at least a year after their husbands die. Losing a spouse is stressful enough without the added strain of selling one's house and uprooting to another city, he said.
How the survivor mentally adjusts depends on many factors, including the length of time the couple were married and the circumstances surrounding the death, he said.
"It makes a great deal of difference whether you had a happy marriage or whether you fought for the last 20 years," Berardo said. "In the first instance, you feel real grief and sadness, and all the emotions of bereavement. In the second instance, you may stand up, click your heels and say ‘free at last.'"
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