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What is a Widow?

Daniel Liden
Daniel Liden

The term widow refers to a woman whose spouse has died and who has not, through choice or through circumstance, remarried. Only a woman can be a widow; a man who has lost his wife and who has not remarried is referred to as a widower. Throughout history, widows have often found themselves in difficult situations, as it was often the man who provided money, food, clothing, and shelter to a family. Widowhood often forced women to find ways to provide and care for children without the help of their husbands. This is not as much of an issue in modern times, as many women are more independent and more able to provide for themselves and for their families than they were in the past.

A widow can be treated in many different ways based on the culture in which she lives. In many modern societies, she is able to remain financially independent by working, conducting business, living from inheritance or accepting assistance from a wealthy relative. This has been the case for some time; even in strongly male-centered societies, women have managed to survive and raise families on their own throughout recent history.

Sympathy notes may be sent to someone who has recently become a widow.
Sympathy notes may be sent to someone who has recently become a widow.

It is not always the case that the widow is able to remain financially stable and care for a family without the help of her deceased husband. Often, the loss of the family's primary source of income and support can plunge the family into a state of relative poverty. Women are often forced to remarry; if they do not do so, they risk losing their children. In some past societies, a widow was actually required by law to remarry. Sometimes she was even forced to marry the brother of her deceased husband; he was put to shame if he refused to accept her.

Many elderly women eventually become widows.
Many elderly women eventually become widows.

Some of the stigmas and consequences historically associated with widowhood were much more dire in a number of societies. In some past Indian cultures, it was customary for a widow, voluntarily or otherwise, to burn herself to death at the funeral pyre of her deceased husband. Widow burning is, in Hindu communities, referred to as Sati; it was so named because of a goddess named Sati who self-immolated after her husband was greatly humiliated by her father. Sati is illegal in most modern societies, but it shows how a culture can negatively react to a situation in the extreme. Despite its general illegality, the rite is still performed on occasion.

Discussion Comments


We learned about the old Hindu custom of sati in my class and also watched a great Indian film about the lives of widows in India, called 'Water.'

Even though sati is not practiced anymore, the film showed that widows have to abide by certain rules and customs. For example, they were required to wear only white clothes after their husband died, they could not grow their hair long, could not wear jewelry and couldn't even eat good food, just plain rice. They also couldn't remarry and either lived in their husband's brother's home or in homes where only widows lived.

I know that in Indian culture, long hair, colorful clothes and jewelry is so important for women. Taking these things away from them seems like taking away the joy of life.

I think it's been a decade since this film was made. I wonder if life for widows in India have improved at all since then? Does anyone know?

Are there any widow support groups or NGOs helping widows in India for example?


@simrin-- Unfortunately, this doesn't apply to the whole world. There are still many countries where women end up in difficulty as widows. Of course there is the difficulty to make a living if the husband doesn't leave behind enough finances to get by.

But even when that is not an issue, in many societies there is pressure from family and society as a whole for widows to live a certain way and that might include remarriage.

I don't know if these societies will ever be able to get past these norms that make these poor widows' lives very difficult.


Thank goodness the times where a widow was ridiculed or forced to remarry are now past. People don't even use the term as much anymore. I have a friend whose husband passed away and she often says that she's single, not a widow.

I think in these modern times, there is no difference between someone who is divorced, a widow or widower or just single except financially.

This is not much of a deal for men, but I think it's very important for women to have the same rights and opportunities no matter what their marital status is, especially considering women's status in history.

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    • Sympathy notes may be sent to someone who has recently become a widow.
      By: JcJg Photography
      Sympathy notes may be sent to someone who has recently become a widow.
    • Many elderly women eventually become widows.
      By: Laiotz
      Many elderly women eventually become widows.
    • Only a woman who has lost her spouse can be considered a widow; a male would be considered a "widower."
      By: michaeljung
      Only a woman who has lost her spouse can be considered a widow; a male would be considered a "widower."