They may have discussed marriage or been engaged.
They may have been life partners because they could not formalize a legal arrangement.
They may have made a heart contract.
They may have been together months or decades; lived together or separately.
And then their beloved dies.
These grieving people often express a different kind of grief. Without a state endorsed ceremony and license, the world of widows and widowers appears to them to be a gated community, walled by two pieces of paper – a wedding license and a death certificate. And it is their perception that this gated community keeps them out.
Despite the derivations, one common thread remains – that the word “widow” or “widower” could be challenged if they were to define themselves thus. But there is no existing word for them.
Many have reported that they feel their grief is devalued. Others have lost shared resources, wealth, and relationships. Some have even lost access to children.
The term “widow” and “widower” is code. It stands for the level of personal disruption and hardship a death creates, as well as the measure of the bond and heartache. Since all terms are slippery, the term “widow” or “widower” never will tease out, for example, the surviving partner that secretly wished the partner dead or the spouse that had an affair and was about to leave the marriage only to be slowed by illness or death.
I undertook study of the word “widow” in it's historical context in search of better understanding. As with all research projects, you begin with an intuitive hunch that may or may not bear out. In this case, there are multiple points of interest to bring to the table.
To know what the word widow meant historically, you have to start with what marriage meant historically.
Marriage in Western civilization has a circuitous history, chiefly influenced by Roman, Hebrew, and Germanic cultures.
Marriage is, unfortunately, not easily summarized. From an anthropological perspective, it appears that all cultures view marriage as an absolute necessity. All cultures pressure healthy persons to marry and bear children. Many cultures have gone so far as to have laws that penalized the unmarried and childless.
While generalities are hard to distill, throughout history marriage consisted of a personal agreement that did not involve government or religion until very recently. Marriage was generally conducted as business arrangement between families.
These soft boundaries in relation to marriage also resulted in soft boundaries in relation to widowhood.
The Judeo-Christian influence on our modern society is undeniable. It is interesting to reconstruct our early ancestors understanding of widowhood.
Greek term translated "widow" (chera) means "bereft" and conveys a sense of suffering loss or being left alone. The term chera is not limited to a woman whose husband has died. It is understood as a woman that was left desolate, forsaken, abandoned and empty.
The Septuagint is the Koine Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, and was written in stages between the 3rd and 2nd Centuries BCE in Alexandria.
The Septuagint's treatment of 2 Samuel 20 includes a story about David taking ten women as his concubines. He put them in ward, fed them, but never had sexual relations or saw them. So they were shut up unto the day of their death, living each day in “widowhood” - the root of “widow” being the greek word chera. This passage demonstrates a completely different understanding of the state of “widowhood” – one where a husband was actually alive. The scriptures often use the term as to be left "desolate" or "alone". At this time in history, being alone was an especially difficult position because community was everything. There was no honorable employment for women, neither was there government assistance.
Since the outlook for women alone was bleak, the early Christian church began to propose that it was a virtue to assist them. The emerging Christian ethos can be seen in James 1:27, where the treatment of widows was a test through which believers demonstrated the genuineness of their faith.
Chera - “widowhood” - was not limited to a husband's death, nor was it limited by religious or legal constructs around the partnership. A widow could be a woman who lost her partner through divorce, desertion, imprisonment, or especially death. If she marries or remarries, she is no longer a “widow” because she is no longer bereft.
Caring for such a woman was seen as a privilege and a manifestation of God's compassion.
Fast forward to Medieval Europe. The legalities of marriage had actually changed very little. Again, the most common kind of marriage was understood simply by the couple's living together for a time period.
It was in this context - in early part of the Middle Ages - that the root of our word “widow” starts to appear. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is before 825 in the Vespasian Psalter: “Sien bearn his asteapte & wif his widwe.” (Orphaned is his son & his wife a widow.) Note the interesting use of the word orphan when the mother is still alive... again, these terms seem to have far looser perimeters than we assign to them. It also reflects a male-centric worldview.
The verb form appears in the Middle English period. From the 14th century Northumbrian poem Cursor Mundi: “Ik am nu widuit of mi spus.” (I am now widowed of my spouse.)
The Indo-European root -"widh" - means to separate, to be empty. The root in Latin is the source of the word: divide. These words imply a state of being rather than a legal condition.
The only sources historians have to determine the civilian histories of widows and widowers are surviving household accounts, personal wills and letters. Historical archives of letters and correspondence indicate that widows were sought after for marriage in Europe in the middle ages. Likely this reflects a motivation to increase power and wealth among families.
Chaucer's Wife of Bath was purported to have “husbands five”. King Henry VII's mother had four husbands. Some wills specified a requirement for their widows to “remain a widow” and not remarry. The Earl of Pembroke stated in his will "wyfe .. . remember your promise to me take the ordyre of widowhood as ye may be the better mayster of your owne, to performe my wille and to help my children, as I love and trust you." They had seven children.
If remarried, these women were no longer considered widows. This might further indicate that the understanding of this word implies that they are no longer left desolate, forsaken, abandoned and empty.
Fast forward to Colonial America. Since there were few courts or churches available... everyone, including aristocrats, were again back to getting married by living together and declaring themselves husband and wife. These were referred to as common-law marriages.
Today, surveys estimate that the marriage rate in the U.S. is half what it was at it's peak after World War II. Some sociologists posit that we are returning to a "pre-modern pattern" where upper-class people marry to protect their holdings while many others don't marry at all.
With a declining marriage rate as well as delayed or lengthened engagements, we are presented with a lack of words and language for a large population who have lost a significant life partner – people who have endured great personal disruption and hardship, who are immersed in, as I term it: a harsh grief wilderness.
Either the language can become more flexible or new words must be developed to give voice to many people who have loved deeply, committed fully and endured great loss.