I lost my first husband, Tom, when I was 34 and he was 40. While statistically speaking I was quite young to have become widowed, the unfortunate fact is that widowhood will be a reality for many women, especially in our later years. This is because women tend to outlive men by a few years, and men tend to marry younger women. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 39.9% of women age 65 and older and 56.9% of women over age 75 are widowed.
Widowhood can profoundly impact women on many levels – emotionally, practically, and financially. The promising news is that by employing some coping strategies, outlined below, you can put yourself in the best position to survive, and even thrive, after the death of a spouse.
Emotional Impacts. My husband Tom had been ill for some time prior to his passing. After he died I was surprised that at times I felt relieved by his death (because it meant the end of his suffering), which led to accompanying feelings of guilt. In fact, many women struggle with the range and unpredictability of emotions they experience after the death of a spouse. In addition to the feelings I described, many widows also experience shock, confusion, denial, anxiety, anger, depression, and loneliness.
Emotional Coping Strategies:
- Lean on friends and family for emotional support. Seek the help of a therapist, grief counselor or grief support group if necessary.
- Eat well and exercise. Good physical health can support a healthier emotional state.
- Avoid making major decisions until your emotions have stabilized – typically at least 6 months to two years after your spouse’s passing.
Practical Impacts. The death of a spouse impacts the surviving spouse’s daily routine and activities. There are both immediate and ongoing implications in this area.
Immediate. There are some matters that will need to be dealt with right away, despite the widow’s state of grief and (often) confusion. You will need to:
- Access funds needed to cover final expenses
- Make funeral arrangements
- Obtain multiple copies of the death certificate
- Transfer your spouse’s accounts (including bank accounts, 401(k) plans, etc.) into your name
- Change titles on cars and your home
- Begin the process of settling the estate.
Ongoing. Practically speaking, in the long run the surviving spouse will need to assume responsibility for some of the duties that were previously shared with or taken care of by your spouse. Such duties may include:
- Household chores
- Caring for children or elderly parents
- Working outside of the home
- Managing the household finances.
Practical Coping Strategies:
- Ask friends and family members for assistance wherever possible, especially with the decisions and actions that must be taken immediately.
- Hire a competent estate attorney and accountant to assist with the estate settlement and final tax returns.
- Evaluate which of the household duties you can reasonably assume and which you can afford to delegate.
Financial Impacts. According to a study by New York Life, “nearly 70% of all women report ‘significant life changes’ after the loss of a spouse, and financial concerns were at the top of the list.” To make the financial transition easier after the loss of a spouse, you should take some steps to get your financial house in order, including:
- Review all insurance coverage to ensure that you and your family are adequately protected.
- Apply to collect any life insurance, pension, veteran’s, and/or social security survivor benefits.
- Evaluate your income, expenses, and long-term major needs such as college expenses, debt payoff, and lifestyle needs. Then take steps to ensure adequate income to support your current lifestyle, and a diversified, sound investment portfolio to support your long-term needs.
Financial Coping Strategies: A competent and trusted financial advisor will be invaluable to help you sort through and address all of the financial issues you are facing at this difficult time. A strong note of caution: While (I believe) the vast majority of financial advisors to be honest and competent, unscrupulous “professionals” have been known to prey on widows, taking advantage of their vulnerability during the grieving process. Be skeptical and cautious, and rely on your instincts as well as referrals from friends and family when selecting professional assistance.