Life post-partner

Rosemary Miles

Photo By Larry Dalton

Rosemary Miles, a doctoral student in clinical psychology, is studying a growing, but little understood, demographic group: midlife women widowed more than once. Having lost two spouses herself before 1994, Miles found that the experience, and women’s reactions to it, didn’t show up in clinical research, so she’s now seeking women to help her understand the phenomenon of early multiple widowhood. Anyone interested in sharing their stories—who’s heterosexual, age 38 to 62, currently uncommitted and three years “post-bereavement”—can contact Miles by e-mail at

What is your research about?

I am doing a research study looking at how the loss of more than one spouse in midlife impacts women in terms of their identity, how they see themselves, their self-definition and the meaning construction—the meaning that they attribute to having lost more than one husband.

What does that mean, the “meaning construction"?

We have certain assumptions about how the world should be. We often think that we’ll lose many people later in our lives, when we’re elderly. And we often don’t think that the same loss event of a person in the same social role, like a husband or a brother or a sister or a parent, is going to happen again to us, especially when it’s out of the life course, when it doesn’t follow in terms of old age, when it happens in midlife. And I’m defining midlife as between the ages of 38 and 62. So, this is a little bit unexpected, an uncommon event, where a woman would become widowed. But then it happens again. So, I’m particularly focusing on how does the woman explain that event? How does she make meaning of that? … In my research, there’s an awful lot on widowhood in the field of grief and bereavement but very little on this subgroup of widows. There wasn’t a whole lot written about what that’s like, to re-experience the same event.

How are you finding people you can work with?

I’ve already done a pilot study, and that means I’ve interviewed two women, and I luckily found two women in Sacramento. It’s amazing how many people you can find just through networking. Like, the first woman I found through my hairdresser. And another one was referred through a good friend. Unfortunately, most researchers would know that when you do a pilot study, very often you don’t use the pilot-study people for your actual study, because I’ve made changes to the study based on the pilot study.

What happens once a woman agrees to join your study?

Usually we chat, and I have just a very brief screening of six questions to see if she fits the criteria of the study, and once she does, I send out a packet. It contains a cover letter describing the study and that her participation is totally voluntary. I’m asking for three or four hours of her time. Attached to the cover letter is a background questionnaire, and it has 18 brief questions, and I ask her to fill that out. Even before the background questionnaire, very important, there’s an informed-consent form. An informed consent is very important in research, so I ask her to go through the informed consent and make sure she’s in agreement with all the issues there and to sign that first. … Then I have a chance to review the background questionnaire, get an idea who she is. And then, after that, we set up an interview date. … Basically, it’s me being there for in-depth listening and for me to elicit her story about her relationships with her two spouses and the process of her loss.

How many women have responded who fit your criteria?

I’ve had 10 responses. I have 10 women’s names who’ve lost more than one spouse, but only one fit the criteria.

What doesn’t fit?

The most common criteria that they don’t fit is that they’re remarried. And the other is that they were not legally married to the person. … Not to negate the grief of someone who’s been in a long-term relationship—I could easily have included that in the study but decided to keep it more homogenous.

Why had this area of study not been approached before?

I think in the past, well, historically women haven’t remarried over 40 as often as men have done, although remarriage now is more common. And, certainly, men die sooner than women, and women are remarrying more frequently now. It’s not as common an event as widowhood … and that’s all I can say. I don’t think it’s been a very common event. And certainly, the whole area of looking at people’s beliefs and meanings is a newer area in the literature, in postmodern thought. So, I think with that shift into postmodernism, [we’re] looking at the meanings, making that very important in people’s lives. What are the beliefs that people construe to events? Now, multiple losses have been looked at in the AIDS population. There’s pretty substantial literature in the AIDS population—not so much the loss of the same social relationship, just multiple losses.