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Sushama Kirtikar

“We are considered bad omens. We are excluded from all auspicious events”, says Lakshmi of Rajasthan. “As soon as my husband died, they took everything away, even the pots, blanket and sacks of maize”, reports Renana of Gujarat. These are quotes from a publication by the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women called “Women 2000.” The report is titled, “Widowhood: invisible women, secluded or excluded.”

According to the same report, almost 7 to 16 percent of all women worldwide are widows. Throughout the world, widows far outnumber widowers due to a longer life expectancy. Despite this significant statistic, they have received minimal attention from social researchers, human rights activists and policy makers. There is insignificant data in the research annals on how Indian American widows fare in the U.S.

The death of a spouse is rated as one of the most stressful life events in a person’s life, (Amster and Krauss, 1974). Such a loss leads to stress, which leads to depression, which leads to noncompliance of medical treatment, which leads to poor health … the list goes on. As we all know, stress manifests itself in several hidden forms such as headaches, respiratory or intestinal problems, etc. Depression can show up as insomnia, loss of interest, irritability, inability to concentrate, social isolation, etc. Refusing medical treatment has severe consequences so that an acute problem can easily balloon into a chronic one, or one medical problem can segue into another like a domino effect.

Overall decline in mental and physical health is directly attributed to the loss of a spouse. Research is particularly linked to higher incidences of heart attack and cancer (Chen et al, 1999). “Women who were widowed were significantly more impaired than married women on measures of social functioning, depressed mood and overall mental health.” (Wilcox et al, 2003). It is unclear how many of these studies represented the Indian American population. However, the 2003 Wilcox study included 3 percent Asian American women. Somewhere in there, I imagine, we may have been represented.

Death of a spouse naturally plunges a widow precipitously into an abyss of grief that appears bottomless. The nature of the death, the age of the widow, her mental preparedness, her life vocation, all play a part in the recovery process. How each woman experiences this grief, expresses and processes it is unique.

A widow may believe that her purpose in life is over now that her partner has left this physical realm. She may be unyielding in her notion that life had meaning only in servitude and dedication to her husband. Whether it is our cultural heritage that has schooled her thus or not, she cannot be faulted for this conviction. She can be gently nudged out of this gripping mindset and invited to taste life again. She owes it to herself and her family.

If there isn’t blatant abuse, abandonment of widows becomes a crime of omission. She hesitates to invite people or to go over to their homes, as she does not know how to relate to others outside the context of marriage. Without her husband’s presence, she may feel awkward about interacting with her friends, particularly their husbands. This precludes her from socializing. The slow self-imprisonment commences. She begins to feel like a misfit and if we do not go out of our way to help her realize she still belongs, that our friendship is with her and not her status as a married woman, she may become a recluse.

We may begin by acknowledging her as a person who matters, encouraging her to begin a regimen of self-care, despite her diffidence in seeking medical help, guiding her in the direction of regaining and maintaining an equilibrium. There is life after the death of a spouse, and she may be inspired to recognize the fork in the road and start a new phase in her life. We can but embolden her in this search for meaning and offer to be her moral, social and emotional support system.

Sushama Kirtikar, a licensed mental health counselor in private practice, can be reached at (813) 264-7114 or e-mail at

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