On 22 July 1960 the BBC World Service broadcast a programme called “The World of the Widow”. It was edited by Peter Marris, a sociologist who two years earlier had published Widows and their Families, one of the first studies on adults’ experiences of grief. “The World of the Widow” is based on this research. The programme includes interviews with widows about their experiences of grief, how they were being treated in their communities, and what financial challenges they faced. But Marris also includes important contextual information about the inadequacies of war widows’ pensions and a more general lack of support from the state.
The programme begins with a telling summary of the struggles a widow encountered in the 1950s and early 1960s. Marris says that “a widow must face: how to master her grief, how to be a father as well as mother to her children, [and] how to manage on an income which may be only a quarter of what her husband used to earn”. But how a widow masters her grief was not always a priority for a society that “coped with the huge losses of both wars by a complex mixture of grief, remembering, and forgetting”, with an “emphasis […] on forgetting after the Second World War” (Pat Jalland, Death in War and Peace).
One of the widows Marris interviewed explains how she was discouraged from expressing or engaging with her grief: “I don’t know, I just couldn’t stand it, there was no-one around me to tell me what to do. When anybody did come they said, ‘You mustn’t think of yourself, you must think of the children.’ I felt like crying but they said I must not, I must think of the children. It was all children and no mother”. A widow with children was predominantly considered and supported in her role as a mother, but she received no help as a bereaved wife.
Socially, widows felt isolated, too. Two interviewees made explicit the awkwardness with which they were received by their friends not only because of their grief but also because they now were unattached women. One interviewee explains that, unlike a single man, a single woman makes for an awkward addition to social occasions because
society doesn’t know how to react to a widow and everybody’s too embarrassed to invite you to join mixed company – you see an odd woman is very different from an odd man, and I was so delighted when I was first invited out to dinner and I let these people know just what a wonderful thing they had done for me. I felt that instead of being an odd bod I was acceptable to their little society and that meant such a lot.
A second interviewee explains how she was the “odd woman out”. Her friends felt awkward about inviting her to social occasions attended only by couples, and she actively avoided such events:
Well, there is no doubt about it, where other husbands and partners are involved, on the whole you are the odd one out. Friends are inclined to invite me to social affairs but unless it is an all-women affair or there are going to be a few spare men, I try and avoid them because there is a particular sense of loneliness at that time, dances and such like, it’s rather difficult if you feel that people are taking pity on you, you have a certain amount of pride naturally.
Pat Jalland has pointed out that “war widows received little attention or community support in the decade after the end of the war” (Death in War and Peace). At the same time, scholars such as Geoffrey Gorer, Peter Marris, and – later – Colin Murray Parkes, slowly but surely began to study grief in adults to help improve support services for those who had suffered bereavement.
You can learn more about war widows in the post-war period here on our History pages. If you found this post interesting, you might also like to read about and view a national broadcast on Child Welfare (1962), which advertised the benefits available to mothers after the war.
This post is based on an annotated transcript of “The World of the Widow” which is being held at the archives of the Wellcome Library.