The widow's pendulum

Author: John Monczunski

The loss of a spouse is one of life’s most traumatic events. Following a husband’s death, widows report riding a roller-coaster of emotions. However, a study by Cynthia Bergeman, a Notre Dame psychology professor, suggests the emotional trajectory of widowhood more closely resembles a pendulum experiencing friction as it swings.

“Initially the mood swings are higher and lower, but over time they damp down, becoming less pronounced, and the overall trajectory eventually becomes positive,” she says.

To get a more detailed picture of that process, the ND psychologist tracked the emotions of a group of widows for five years. The women were interviewed twice and surveyed numerous times during the course of the study, uncovering some surprises.

For instance, while it’s long been known that people who have a good support network fare better than those who don’t, Bergeman found that it was important for the widows to feel they had control of that support network. “In other words,” she says, “if I want you to come visit me, I should believe I can make that happen. We found that people who felt they had control had a more positive trajectory in regulating their emotions.”

Another surprise was that the widows were not interested in support groups per se. “They were more likely to look for support from their card club or church group, people they already knew,” Bergeman says. “They didn’t want to talk about their issues with strangers even though they had experienced the same problems.”

The ND psychologist believes that this aversion to formal support groups was related to the older age of the widows in the study, all above 60. “At this point in the life span the loss of a spouse is pretty common, so many people in their existing social groups have already experienced it and can relate to how they’re feeling.” In contrast, Bergeman suspects widows in their 20s or 30s would be more open to formal support groups since widowhood is uncommon in that age group and therefore their existing social groups are less likely to relate.

In the study, widows reported receiving overwhelming support immediately after their husband’s death, but they were disappointed because that support tended to fade within two to three weeks when they say they really needed it. The women also reported that the experience often transformed relationships in their lives, especially if they received support from someone whom they did not expect.

“The widows were acutely aware of people who merely said, ‘If you need anything, let me know,’ and those who really mean it,” Bergeman notes.

John Monczunsk is an associate editor of this magazine. Email him at