We hear from from Dr Amy Johnson, Dr Gill McGill and Dr Gemma Wilson-Menzfeld on their research which aimed to explore the levels and experiences of Military Widows’ social isolation and loneliness, as well as to identify what available services exist to help Military Widows.
Lack of existing evidence
Feelings of loneliness and isolation can fluctuate through life events or life transitions, such as becoming a parent, retiring from work, and through bereavement. Experiences of loneliness and social isolation are distinct and can be life-long for Military Widows whose significant other has been killed suddenly, and often in traumatic circumstances.
After examining the evidence already available, we found that there were only three international studies that explored loneliness, and no studies had focused specifically on social isolation. The research that was available found that feelings of loneliness could change throughout the life course and that peer support could be a helpful model of support. Most of the available provisions supported veterans or their families and there were not many services that supported only Military Widows. The provisions that were available were dependent on factors such as rank or age.
The scale of the problem
During Phase One of our research, we invited 165 Military Widows to complete an online survey to explore their experiences before and after their bereavement to see how this influenced their feelings of loneliness. Of those who responded, 40.61% reported being socially isolated and/or lonely. There was a negative relationship between social isolation and loneliness and current household income. Household income was significantly reduced following bereavement, which was significantly linked with age.
72.12% of survey respondents were members of a Military Widow Association, with just over half (53.33%) a member of The War Widows’ Association. Participants told us that they struggled to trust others again and that their relationships with family changed following their bereavement. Some remarried and found this helped them with their grief, but for some, new relationships were less positive.
Challenges to identity and relationships
In Phase Two, we interviewed 26 participants to examine the survey findings more thoroughly. Seven of these participants worked for charities/associations, and only one of these was not a military widow. Participants described their identity changing from Military Wife to Widow and some felt forgotten by the military. There was confusion about the term ‘War Widow’ and whether they met their perceived definition of this. Stereotypical views were described as unhelpful with perceptions of ageing widows shrouded in black and participants did not feel this reflected reality. Participants described how their relationships had changed, and how some were now seen as a romantic threat and were avoided by people they considered friends. Despite all of this, some participants remained resilient and independent, and described ‘keeping moving forward’ and ‘keeping busy and focusing on their children’.
Challenges in finding support
Some interview participants described what they considered to be a hierarchy of death, where those whose partners died outside of service or who died by suicide feeling as though they received less support than those whose partners died in service, particularly in combat. Participants struggled to find appropriate support and did not know how to access this. In turn, organisations found it hard to contact Widows. Peer support was seen as valuable and helped reduce isolation, however, some reported hierarchies and cliques with other members, meaning they struggled to engage. There was also variation in what support was available across the UK. It was clear that feelings of grief and loneliness could change throughout life and therefore it was important to ensure that support was continuously available.
Recommendations from the research
Finally, we held a co-production workshop where we invited 31 Military Widows and representatives from relevant organisations to help us fully understand our findings and develop some service recommendations. Discussions focused on the categorisation of widowhood, challenges in accessing services, and how to improve or overcome these issues.
We brought together the findings from all the study phases to develop some recommendations for practice. These recommendations include:
- To agree on the use of the term ‘Military Widow’ that is recognisable to widows themselves and service providers.
- To include Military Widows in health and support services to make sure these are person-centred and based on their needs, as opposed to only being available for a period of time.
- Future research should aim to reach the hard-to-reach populations who may not benefit from Association membership.
If you’d like to read more about our research, you can access the full report here:
If you would be interested in attending an online public lecture about this research over the summer of 2023, please contact Dr Amy Johnson (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Dr Gemma Wilson-Menzfeld (email@example.com) for more information.