Boxes for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale
Things That Suck

Widowhood is Stressful. This Survey Proves It.

It wasn’t until after Shawn died that I realized my hair had been falling out. The bald spots on my head were growing, once again. Because that’s what every newly widowed 38-year-old wants….to be bald!

It was like the universe or God or something was just adding yet another “fuck you” to the list of things that could go wrong in my life. Wasn’t it bad enough that my husband had just died? Now I had to contend with a bald spot that was spreading?

Stress causes me to lose my hair. (Luckily, it’s mostly in the back of my head, but sometimes the spots can get really big.) This, apparently, is not an entirely unknown phenomenon, because after I wrote about it for the Post, I had a number of people tell me it had happened to them, too. And for many of them, it was also tied to stress.

It made me think about the connection between stress and health for widows, and I went digging for more that I could find out. Somehow, I came across the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, which is a rating scale where you can add up all the stressful life events you’ve been through in the last year to find out how likely you are to have a major health breakdown in the next two years. The more points….well, the worse it is. Sounds fun, right?

I opened the survey and looked at the list. Guess what the most stressful life event is?

Death of a spouse.

I mean, of course it is!

But here’s the rub: there are 42 other things on the list, and so many of them also happen to widows! Yes, as if it’s not bad enough that you’ve lost the love of your life, you likely have at least a handful of other things (and maybe even dozens more) that add stress to your life.

Take #16: major change in financial state. Well, yes, that’s often a huge issue that widowed people face, now that you have to live on one salary. Or #32, changes in residence, which I know many widows contend with when they are forced (or need) to move. Or how about #36, major change in social activities? There’s no way widowhood doesn’t go with #36!

I don’t know a widow who didn’t experience both #38, major change in sleeping habits, as well as #40, major change in eating habits, which is especially terrible as both things are so vital to healing. There’s also #29, revision of personal habits, which likely applies to most widows because how can any habits really stay the same after tragic loss? And we can’t forget #13, sexual difficulties, because of course new widows face that even if no one wants to talk about it.

There are so many more that might apply. Trouble with in-laws? (#24) Major change in usual type and/or amount of recreation? (#34) Major change in number of family get-togethers? (#39).

I am just getting started.

I decided to add up all the points I would have had the first year after being widowed. I got 492! I’m not sure if I did it right, but even if I messed up, it was well above the 300 points you had to score to be in the worst-case scenario. It’s notable that I had a pretty good situation (relatively speaking) for a young widow – I had a supportive family and community, I didn’t lose my house, my dad moved in with me, and I had a stable job…and I still scored 192 points above the cutoff for the worst category, the one that says there is an 80% chance of a health breakdown in the next two years.

I don’t know if this chart would have necessarily been helpful to me back in early widowhood, but it does help me understand the huge amount of stress I was under. It also shows how so many new widows are likely to be under the same stress, the kind that is literally off-the-charts. 492 is a lot of stress points.

No wonder my hair was falling out.


  • Gina

    Love your writings! Been invaluable over the past year since I lost my husband. The best part of this blog was…”a big f”$# you, what else can go wrong…” Isn’t that how we think and feel ?! Always waiting for the bad news, like we have not been thru enough. But in reality, my luck hasn’t been great, I was dealt a difficult hand, my husband was dealt a harder one. It’s all part of what we have been thru. The big question no one can answer is..why us? Keep the writing coming. I love when I’m scrolling and there’s a new piece. Glad happiness found it’s way to you!! Congratulations on your marriage.

    • M Brimley

      Totally! It’s like, what else could possibly go wrong? I wrote a blog about this way back in the first months of widowhood which was called “It Can Always Get Worse” ( because that’s just how it is with widows! ACK. Hang in there. I’m glad the blog is at least a little bit helpful.