Bereavement and Race Essay

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The increased risk of death among individuals who have lost their spouse is known as the “bereavement” or “widowhood effect.” The bereavement effect originates from the difference between the health benefits of marriage and the negative consequences of widowhood. Research shows a strong and long-lasting bereavement effect among white men and women in the United States but no evidence for a bereavement effect among black men and women. The size of the widowhood effect for spouses in black-white interracial marriages may depend on the race of the wife. No research presently exists on the widowhood effect among Asian and Hispanic individuals in the United States.

Among whites married to whites, the death of one spouse increases the risk of death for the surviving spouse by over 50 percent during the first month of widowhood. For at least the first 3 years of widowhood, widowed individuals continue to face a risk of death that is more than 10 percent higher than that of comparable married individuals. The bereavement effect is the same for men and women, at least in old age. Research attributes the bereavement effect among whites to a variety of mechanisms, including emotional distress, difficulties with adjusting to new daily routines, the loss of spousal support, and the loss of health supervision. Traditionally, men lose their primary caregiver, whereas women suffer from reduced economic resources. Widows and widowers report less healthy lifestyles than married individuals and reduced access to high-quality medical care.

As mentioned, research has found no bereavement effect among blacks married to blacks. Because blacks derive similar health benefits from marriage as whites, the absence of a bereavement effect among blacks is likely due to racial differences in the experience of widowhood. Research suggests three possible explanations for this absence. First, blacks are twice as likely as whites to live with relatives in old age (40 percent vs. 20 percent). Coresident relatives may provide care for bereaved individuals, thus effectively substituting for the health services previously rendered by the spouse. Second, the gendered division of labor in marriages among blacks is, on average, less rigid. This may instill greater self-sufficiency, reduce spousal task dependence, and consequently better prepare blacks for widowhood. Third, greater religiosity and religious participation among blacks may provide bereaved individuals with spiritual comfort and social resources for dealing with loss that are less available to whites.

One study suggests that the bereavement effect for men in black-white intermarriage may depend entirely on the race of the wife: Elderly black men who lose a white wife suffer a bereavement effect, whereas white men married to a black wife do not suffer a widowhood effect. This may be explained by differences in kin involvement of racially intermarried spouses, but strong evidence for this or other explanations is presently unavailable.


  • Elwert, Felix and Nicholas A. Christakis. 2006. “Widowhood and Race.” American Sociological Review 71:16-41.

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