Perceptions of the Widow’s Bereavement Process
by Her Adult Child
Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University
Doctoral Dissertation Summary
This article is a summary of my doctoral dissertation findings in answering the following empirical question: After a woman loses her husband through death, how well do her adult children understand her adjustment to widowhood?
Until I conducted my study, no research project has ever included both the widow and her adult child. The present study, my dissertation project, had two purposes: (a) to assess the adult child’s accuracy level of his or her mother’s answers to a 135-item grief survey; (b) to investigate the contribution of a number of variables to this accuracy level. In other words, the widowed mother filled out the survey and one of her adult children filled out the same survey by guessing how mother had answered. The amount of correct guesses by the adult child was called the accuracy rate. A theoretical approach known as Person Perception was used to choose some of the variables that may influence the adult child’s accuracy of their widowed mother’s bereavement.
How Was the Study Conducted?
Participants were 59 mother/child pairs. In those cases in which more than one adult child responded, one child was randomly selected for inclusion in the present study. Women were widowed between 1 and 10 years (mean = 3.5 years). Their average age was 60.5 (range 39 to 80 years); their children averaged 34 years. Forty-five percent had husbands who had experienced a sudden death; 55% of the husbands had died of a chronic illness, most often cancer. Most (80%) women had attended a widowed support group at a local hospice organization.
I gave widowed mothers surveys that consisted of more than 250 questions, most of which asked how they were doing since the death of their husband. The main tool I used was the Grief Experience Inventory (GEI) which tapped into the following grief issues: Denial, Despair, Anger, Guilt, Social Isolation, Loss of Control, Rumination, Depersonalization, Somatization, Death Anxiety, Sleep, Appetite, Vigor, Physical Symptoms, Optimism/Despair, and Dependency.
Adult children were also asked a number of questions. Like their mothers they also filled out the GEI. However, they filled out the GEI a second time with the following instruction: “I want you to guess how your mother answered these same questions.”
Results and Discussion
A series of statistical tests (t-tests) revealed that mothers had significantly higher grief scores on 10 of the 15 GEI scales. This supports much anecdotal material as well as previous research, which has concluded that for most people, the loss of a husband is followed by a more intense and prolonged bereavement than the loss of a father.
When mothers were asked, "In thinking about your interactions with your adult child over the past year, about how much of your feelings and information about how your life had been going do you share with this person?" nearly 90% felt that they should neither hold back everything from their children nor tell them everything. The average percent of how much mothers shared with their children was about 60%. Interestingly, when the adult children were asked to estimate how much they felt their mothers should be sharing with them about how her life had been going, they also averaged 60%. It is not possible to determine how typical these figures are because presently there is no other research in this area of parent-adult child communication.
Adult children most frequently obtained information about their mother from their brothers and sisters (64% did so) and next from friends of their mother (29%). More research needs to be done to investigate the information exchange network of these parties.
Of all the grief reactions by the mothers, their adult children knew least about their mother’s anger and their mother’s level of numbness, shock, and confusion that they still felt even years after the death of their husbands. The most important finding was the following:. When the adult children were asked to estimate the accuracy of their GEI predictions, they averaged significantly higher proportions (75%) than their actual “hit” rate of (67%). In other words, nearly three out of every four adult children believed they knew more about their mother’s bereavement than they actually did.
The present study yielded the following findings:
Daughters did not understand their widowed mothers any better than sons. Despite the belief that daughters are closer than sons to their mothers, there were no gender differences in how much daughters and sons knew how about how their mother was coping years after the death of her husband.
The adult child’s level of understanding of their mother’s grief did not increase with any of the following:
Time—In other words, those whose father had died 6-10 years ago did not understand what their mother was going through any better than those whose father had died 1-5 years ago
Increasing face-to-face contact—Those adult children who lived with or near their mothers did not understand their mother’s grief any better than those who lived further away.
Increasing sharing of feelings by mother—The adult children whose mothers shared more of their feelings with them knew no more about how their mothers were coping with their grief than those whose mothers shared less.
In concluding my study I suggested that future research in this area should focus upon discovering the factors that do contribute to an increased understanding by the adult child. The only variable that demonstrated any potential for an increased understanding by the adult child was letters and phone calls. The average letter-writing was 1-2 times per year for this group. The phone call rate averaged once a week. Given that this study was conducted nearly four decades ago, it would be interesting to repeat this study to explore the role of texting as a way for adult children to understand more of what their widowed mothers are going through.
In addition, it is clear that part of an effective clinical intervention would be to: (a) suggest to adult children that they likely do not know as much about their mother’s widowhood process as they believe; and (b) convey to relatives and friends of the widowed person that, because they can never fully “understand” widowhood and because the widowed person may not want to share all of her feelings, they may have to be content with understanding only part of her bereavement process.
Finally, future research of this type should look into the world of (a) the widower to understand the extent to which similar findings would emerge for men who are coping with the death of their wives; and (b) same sex couples who have adult children.
I wish to give special thanks to all the widowed mothers and their adult children who chose to participate in this study. By giving of themselves they have helped to provide insights into the complex world of the bereaved. Thanks to all of you.