Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Widowhood and Well-Being in Europe: The Role of National and Regional Context

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Widowhood and Well-Being in Europe: The Role of National and Regional Context

Article excerpt

The loss of a spouse is one of the most stressful events people can experience in their lives. In addition to the grief of losing a loved one, widows and widowers must learn to redefine relationships with family and friends; adjust to new routines; and take over the deceased's daily roles, such as caretaker or wage earner (Subramanian, Elwert, & Christakis, 2008). When measured against other stressful life events, including death of a child and divorce, researchers have found that bereavement of a spouse requires the greatest amount of readjustment (Stroebe & Stroebe, 1995).

Widowhood negatively affects subjective well-being not only because of the initial strain of losing a spouse but also because of the loss of resources that accompanies widowhood (Coombs, 1991; Gove, 1973; Joung et al., 1997, Shapiro & Keyes, 2008, Stack & Eshleman, 1998). These resources include emotional, social, financial, and instrumental support. Financial and instrumental support can be conceived of in terms of money and mundane services such as cooking and cleaning. Widowed individuals, like everyone, will have lower subjective well-being if they do not have access to these resources. Furthermore, widows and widowers also need access to emotional and social support. Emotional and social support refers to contact with others through which widowed persons can receive advice and support regarding emotional and personal matters. Becoming widowed may lessen one's opportunities to share emotions or interact with others because widowed individuals lose the connection to the deceased spouse and, possibly, also to the spouse's social network.

Despite the often-observed negative effect of widowhood on well-being (Clark & Oswald, 2002; Subramanian et al., 2008), the strength of this effect is not constant across groups. Studies have revealed that the consequences of becoming widowed vary across race (Elwert & Christakis, 2006) and gender (Lee, DeMaris, Bavin, & Sullivan, 2001). This suggests that the extent to which widowhood has a detrimental impact on well-being depends on other attributes of widowed individuals and their social environment. Some groups of widowed individuals may experience a greater loss of emotional, social, financial, and instrumental resources after bereavement than others. In addition, research has documented that the well-being of widowed individuals varies across countries, with recently widowed individuals from Southern Europe exhibiting more depressive symptoms than those from Northern Europe (Schaan, 2013), a pattern that persists even after emigration (Panagiotopoulos, Walker, & Luszcz, 2013). These cross-national differences in the impact of widowhood on well-being may be due to differences in resources among widowed individuals across countries, but they also may be due to differences in norms toward widowhood and the portrayal of widowed individuals in the media and in social discourse.

It is clear that the context in which widows and widowers live can influence their well-being, but research has yet to identify why widowed individuals are better off in some contexts than in others and which contextual factors explain differences in the well-being gap. In this study, we examined the ways in which contextual-level factors interfere with the effect of widowhood on subjective well-being via contribution to or detraction from social, emotional, financial, and instrumental resources. More specifically, we argue that the composition of married and widowed individuals at the national and subnational regional levels may determine the extent to which widowed individuals in these countries and regions receive sufficient resources to deal with the consequences of bereavement. We aimed to answer the following research question: "To what extent do the national and regional marital status composition affect the relationship between widowhood and well-being in Europe?" We considered both widows and widowers together, and, for the sake of parsimony, this group is hereafter referred to collectively as widows. …

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