Dialogue With the Departed


Darach Turley (1995) ,"Dialogue With the Departed", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 10-13.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 10-13


Darach Turley, Dublin City University


Virtually all studies of husband wife decision making have, for obvious reasons, focused on those stages in the family life cycle when both partners were alive. This study examines in an exploratory fashion the possibility that a form of joint decision making might persist after one of the partners - in this case the husband - has died. Evidence from psychological studies on bereavement is adduced to illustrate how widows construct recollections of their spouses, sense their continued presence, and conduct "conversation" with them. These studies form a rationale for investigating whether the deceased spouse continues to exert any influence on the surviving spouse's consumer decisions. Results provide preliminary support for this view. They also suggest that the precise nature of the widow - deceased spouse relationship is a considerably multi-faceted one.


Traditional models of the family life cycle usually comprise at least one category at the end of the cycle to cater for families where one person remains living alone. This stage is variously described as the "solitary survivor" (Wells & Gubar, 1966) or "older singles" (Hawkins, Best & Coney, 1995) stage. It will normally denote a person who is either separated/divorced, or widowed. For one of these groups, the widowed, the catalyst for transition to this final stage of the family life cycle is usually a traumatic and personally significant event - conjugal bereavement. Despite the radical upheaval occasioned by the loss of a spouse or partner, segmentation studies of older consumers have singularly failed to probe the potential ramifications of marital status as a segmentation variable for senior markets (Bone, 1991).

For obvious reasons, studies of the dynamics of joint decision making by couples are generally confined to stages of the family life cycle when both partners are alive and enjoying a modicum of interpersonal contact. However, research has yet to address the possibility of joint decision making, understood here in a figurative sense, in the solitary survivor stage of the family life cycle. This paper seeks to examine in an exploratory manner whether such joint decision making persists during the post-mortem period between the surviving and the deceased spouse. Specifically, this study will focus on older widows and the degree to which they perceive their departed spouses influence their consumption decisions.

The choice of widows rather than widowers was due to two considerations. First, widows vastly outnumber widowers; loss of the male partner first is the demographic norm (Census, 1991). Second, whilst there is disagreement as to whether men or women suffer greater emotional trauma as a result of conjugal bereavement (Ferraro, 1989, Stuart-Hamilton, 1991), it is generally agreed that it has a qualitatively different impact on each gender group (Nussbaum, Thompson, & Robinson, 1989). While the designation "solitary survivor" could apply to a younger widow without any offspring, it generally tends to occur at more advanced stages in the female life course (Rogers, 1982).


The relationship between the widow and her deceased spouse has received a modicum of attention in the cognate disciplines of psychology and sociology (Lopata, 1981; Silverman, 1986; Parkes, 1991). Studies have revealed three distinct yet interrelated dimensions to this postmortem relationship.

Husband Sanctification

Partners in the marital relationship, unless physically separated for a long duration, live so close to one another as to almost preclude the formation of a comprehensive image or assessment of one partner by the other. Conjugal familiarity militates against the requisite distance needed to form an holistic, mental picture of the life-partner (Parkes, 1991). Typically, such a picture can only realistically be achieved after the demise or departure of one of the partners.

The formation of a recollected image of the spouse begins almost immediately after death. Negative aspects of the deceased, and perforce of the former relationship, are deliberately sifted out with the result that an idealised picture of the husband begins to emerge. This common phenomenon has been variously defined as "retrospective distortion" (Parkes, 1991) and "husband sanctification" (Lopata, 1981).

According to Lopata (1973, 1981) a widow is expected by society to weave a sanitised biography of the departed husband into social memory and, at the same time to detach herself sufficiently from him to enable her continue existing relationships and develop new ones. In two separate surveys of Chicago widows, Lopata (1981) found that most of her respondents had engaged in "husband sanctification" as a means of overcoming these conflicting demands. This involved the creation of a selective biography, an idealisation of his person and achievements - 87% of widows in her 1973 survey agreed with the statement: "my husband was an unusually good man".

Lopata also reported societal complicity in this process. Friends, neighbours, and family tended to speak no ill of the deceased when visiting the widow. Likewise, eulogies, religious or otherwise, perpetuated a highly selective view of the widow's spouse. This social complicity militates against any realistic estimation of the extent to which widows distort the memory of their spouse, as it pre-empts the possibility of asking other relatives the precise nature of the marriage relationship.

The age and education of the widow, and the importance she accorded the role of wife were significant influences on levels of husband sanctification; older and less educated widows were more likely to behave this way (Lopata, 1984). Counterintuitively, the length of widowhood was not a significant variable in determining levels of husband sanctification among Lopata's (1981) older widows.

Sense of the Presence of the Spouse

A traumatic event such as the loss of a spouse cannot be absorbed and accepted at once. Widows engage in a number of defence mechanisms to mitigate the grief they are undergoing and to buy time against a full realisation of their loss. "In denying the reality of their loss, they provide themselves with the opportunity to prepare for it" Parkes (1991, p.92). One such mechanism is entertaining a comforting presence of the dead spouse. Such an awareness is a feature of the first year of bereavement in particular; it is likely to have tapered off substantially by the fourth year (Zisook & Shuchter, 1986). Feelings of the continued presence of the departed husband often arise at times and occasions when the couple would have been alone together for example, at meals, watching television at night, or around the Christmas period.





In addition to these situational cues, the presence of the spouse is often conjured up deliberately by the widow for emotional solace. A sense of the presence of the deceased husband is cited by Glick, Weiss, & Parkes (1974) as one of the few aspects of grieving mediated by religious-cultural belief. While Parkes (1991) claims that a sense of the deceased husband's presence is related to greater feelings of loneliness, widows claiming awareness of such presence did feel that it helped them at the time. There appears to be little reason to view this continued sense of the spouse's presence as anything other than a natural side-effect of bereavement.

Conversing with the Deceased Spouse

A feeling of the enduring presence of the dead spouse is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the widow conducting inner conversations with him. Glick, Weiss, & Parkes (1974) investigated this additional dimension to the absent husband's role and concluded that this continued conversational attachment was not incompatible with an increased capacity for independent action. This same study noted a further dimension to the deceased spouse's role - that of influencer of the widow's management decisions. This influence consisted primarily in the wife adverting to the spouse's imagined advice and could apply even to widows who did not experience the continued presence of their husband, did not idealise his memory, and had never indulged in illusory conversations with him. This feature of the deceased spouse's influence on the survivor's decisions provides the specific focus of this paper.


Lopata (1981) developed a "husband sanctification" scale consisting of a battery of psychometric items. This scale was modified for the present study by including two items which sought to extend the sanctification construct. These additional items were intended to assess how inclined widows were to defer to their husband's imagined wishes in their consumer decisions. This modified scale was administered to a random sample of Irish widows (N=196) on a structured questionnaire the main purpose of which was to investigate the financial affairs of widows. The elements for this sample were non-institutionalised females aged 60 and over on the date they were approached, who had lost their spouse within the last decade. The extent of the population denotes all eligible widows living in the Republic of Ireland.

Respondents were further asked if they would be willing to be interviewed in person by the author to discuss this area in greater detail. It was felt that the allied topics of the spouse's continued presence and "conversations" with him would be more appropriately broached in a personal interview setting. The advantages of utilising such "call-back" subsamples has been noted by Seltiz et al. (1976). Thirty nine widows in all agreed to a personal interview. The average duration for each interview was one and a quarter hours. Transcriptions from these interviews were analysed to illuminate and expand answers procured in the structured questionnaire. Specifically the categories sought in this analysis of the transcripts pertained solely to the modalities of the influence of the deceased spouse and not to its extent or application to particular product/service areas. A second researcher who had not been involved in the primary research assisted in the analysis to bolster the reliability of the categories obtained.


Frequencies for the "sanctification" scale items are presented in Table 1. The Cronbach alpha for this husband sanctification scale was 0.70. This inter-item reliability permitted the computation of an overall score for each respondent on this sanctification dimension. The aggregate scores for the combined items in this scale are reproduced in table 2. The headings "definitely/ definitely not" instead of "agree/disagree" serve to highlight the fact that percentages refer to the proportion of widows engaging in such sanctification in an overall sense; this should be distinguished from their agreement levels for the individual scale items which went to make up this dimension.

Table 2 provided preliminary evidence of a proclivity by widows to imitate or continue aspects of their husband's purchase behaviour and to defer to his remembered preferences in purchase decisions. To investigate this phenomenon further, respondents in the personal interviews were asked if they adverted to "what their husband would have done" when they had an important purchase decision to make. Agreement was widespread if not universal.

Although the moderator had asked simply whether they adverted to their husband's perceived wishes, respondents' replies made frequent reference to "speaking" with their deceased spouse, often during graveside visits:

"Sometimes, I hear him say "All right, go ahead"."

"I still say "Guide me the right way"."

"They're still there. I talk to him every day. I'm still married to him."

This latter statement was particularly illuminating as it disclosed a rationale for continuing to consult the spouse. It also emerged that this phenomenon extended to quite mundane matters. Some widows continued to vote as their husband did, another woman cut the grass exactly as her spouse did so that the lawn pattern would be the same, yet another recounted how she tearfully "spoke" with her dead husband the first time she had to fix a plug. Four respondents volunteered that one practical way of doing what their husband wanted was by dealing with the same people he dealt with when procuring products and services. This applied in particular to home maintenance and financial service providers.

For several widows, deferring to their husband was linked with keeping his memory alive, a feature of husband sanctification noted earlier. Some participants admitted keeping their husband's clothes and pillows; in one instance the room in which he died had been left untouched for two years.

Respondents were probed further on this topic and asked if there were not times when they wanted to make purchase decisions on their own to prove their independence, and, if so, whether this did not run counter to what had been discussed above. Answers revealed that there were indeed times when items had to be purchased for which there was no precedent when their husbands were alive. The satisfaction they derived from making these decisions successfully complemented rather than contradicted their reliance on their husband for other decisions. Indeed, a revealing comment by one City Centre widow illustrated how widows might decide for themselves while still involving their deceased spouse in the process:

"Even if I ask "I wonder if he'd have done it this way?" and then do the opposite, I'm still sharing the decision with him."

For a sizeable number of respondents, discussion of the husband as referent or mentor for purchase decisions developed into a discussion of the husband in a more salient and fundamental role, that of "fellow-consumer". Widows missed their husband as someone with whom they could share consumption-related pleasures. This could occur even if the wife alone had made the decision and purchased the item herself:

"When you go to a play, there's no-one to describe it to; when you get a frock no-one else says "that's lovely". Even looking at television is not the same"

It appeared that if husbands were missed for their advice in knowing how to consume, they were even more sorely missed as companions with whom widows could share the experiences this consumption afforded.

It should be noted that no widow questioned the worth of referring to their deceased spouse in making consumer decisions. Stated aversion levels to re-marriage may have been a contributary cause by emphasising the spouse's irreplaceable status even further. It was also implied, if not stated, that the majority of participants believed in an afterlife. It does seem reasonable to postulate that this belief might increase the propensity to advert to the spouse's imagined wishes.

As proposed by Lopata (1981), husband sanctification was viewed purely on a psychological level and was seen to include the creation of a selective, sanitised, biography of the deceased spouse which facilitated his being consigned to memory more expeditiously. This current research has expanded understanding of this concept in a number of ways. In the first instance, scale items referring to the husband's continuing influence on the widow's purchase decisions were seen to correlate with items traditionally used to measure the sanctification construct. There are thus grounds for supposing that widows with a high estimation of their marriage and their husband will comply with or at least "consult" his imagined wishes in their decision-making during bereavement. Widows who feel that their spouse still "watches" their financial management and purchase behaviour are more likely to consider his imagined wishes in their decisions.

A common belief in an afterlife also made for freer disclosure of remarks on this topic in the personal interviews. The immediacy and vividness of some of the assertions of the husband's continued presence displayed a candour which, to a non-believing audience, might seem to verge on the hallucinational.

The prevalence of this influence of the deceased husband on the widow's decisions was such that, unlike American studies, no significant relationships could be found in the survey data showing a higher incidence of this phenomenon in some sub-groupings of widows than in others. The sole exception was decision-making style. Women who had made most purchase decisions jointly with their spouse were significantly more likely (p=.0002) to register a higher score on the sanctification scale than women in marriages where either the husband or the wife alone made such decisions. To-date, decision-making style has failed to feature in the literature as a possible correlate of husband sanctification despite the fact that a relationship between the two variables has a certain logical appeal. Wives accustomed to making purchase decisions on a shared basis might be expected to persist in such a decision style after bereavement, especially if they believe in an afterlife. It might also be speculated that the legal prohibition on divorce in Ireland, coupled with the fact that respondents were over 60 and thus unlikely to remarry, served to enhance the standing of the deceased spouse in the widow's memory.

A further conclusion of this research is that the term "husband sanctification" is both inadequate and misleading in terms of its ability to describe the husband's postmortem influence on the widow's consumer decisions. There was evidence of a selectivity in the way the spouse's biography was recounted; there was evidence of an exaggerated estimation of his remembered consumer expertise, evidence too of his enduring presence and scrutiny of the wife's decisions, but the unquestioning adherence to his imagined wishes denoted by the term "sanctification" was far from widespread. The term "husband sanctification" is also less than optimal for consumer behaviour purposes in that it fails to convey how multi-dimensional the role of the deceased spouse may be. The combined effect of both research strands on this topic has been to show that the husband's influence should really be considered under a number of interrelated though distinct headings:

A) Enduring Presence: The extent to which a widow either believes in or experiences the continued presence of her deceased spouse.

B) Idealisation: The degree to which a bereaved wife idealises her husband's memory. In a consumer behaviour context, this could mean an idealised recollection of his expertise in money management or purchase decisions.

C) Communication: The degree to which the widow feels in contact with her late husband. Some respondents reported "speaking" to their deceased spouse when confronted with important or novel consumer decisions during widowhood.

D) Consideration : The degree to which the bereaved wife takes her deceased husband's imagined or remembered wishes into consideration when contemplating purchase decisions. Many women not reporting communication with their spouse still placed considerable weight on his advice, as they remembered it, in their deliberations.

E) Compliance: The degree to which widows defer to their late spouse's imagined wishes in their purchase decisions. Some widows may follow these wishes to the letter, others may use it as a benchmark, still others may take note of these wishes and then choose to do the exact opposite - the fact that they had not ceded to their husband's wishes was of lesser importance than that the decision had been made "jointly".

This clarification of the possible role of the husband in the wife's post-bereavement consumer behaviour should benefit future research in this area. The data from this research suggest that, for older Irish widows, the "Consideration" and "Compliance" elements above play an important role. Significant majorities "thought of how their husband would feel before buying important things" (Consideration) and "preferred to give business to the same people their husband dealt with" (Compliance). This would suggest that businesses who have successfully catered for husbands during their lives share a distinct advantage in securing the continued custom of their wives after they die. One instance of this phenomenon was the manner in which respondents in the personal interviews had deliberately chosen to stay with the banks their husbands had patronised.


If the enduring influence of the deceased husband on the widow's consumer behaviour is to be researched further, some assessment of the quality or closeness of the marital relationship would also seem appropriate. No such measure was unearthed in the literature; it would obviously be prone to problems of validity, given that widows would be retrospectively evaluating their previous marriage. Nonetheless, the influence of the marital relationship on the early purchase decisions of some widows in the personal interviews was quite striking and bears further scrutiny.

Turning to the post-bereavement phase, the influence of the deceased spouse on the widow's purchase decisions received considerable attention in this study. While significant numbers of Irish widows attested to this continuing influence, a number of more precise questions now need to be addressed. In the first place, what are the precise product/service areas where the enduring influence of the spouse is most pronounced? Is this influence applicable only to types of decisions the wife would have seen her husband make? How does this influence operate when the widow is faced with a decision for which she can recall no precedent during her years of married life?


Bone, Paula Fitzgerald (1991), "Identifying Mature Consumer Segments" Journal of Consumer Marketing, vol.8, no.4, Fall, p.19-32.

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Ferraro, Kenneth F. (1989), "Widowhood and Health" in Aging, Stress and Health. Kyriakos S. Markides and Cary L. Cooper, (eds.), New York, John Wiley & Sons.

Glick, Ira O., Weiss, Robert S., Parkes, C. Murray (1974), The First Year of Bereavement, New York, John Wiley & Sons.

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Parkes, Colin Murray (1991), Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life, (2nd.ed.), London: Penguin Books.

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Silverman, Phyllis R. (1986), Widow to Widow, Springer Series on Social Work, New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Stuart-Hamilton, Ian (1991), The Psychology of Ageing: An Introduction, London: Jessica Kingley Publishers.

Wells, William D., Gubar, George (1966), "Life Cycle Concept in Marketing Research", Journal of Marketing Research, November, p.355-363.

Zisook, S., Shuchter, R. S. (1986), "The First Four Years of Widowhood", Psychiatric Annals, 16, 5, May, p.288-294.



Darach Turley, Dublin City University


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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