By Anh Thu Tran, MBA
Given longer life expectancies, approximately 80% of women die alone while 80% of men die with a companion.
- One in four American women ages 65 to 74 are widows.
- Three in four American women ages 85 or older are widows.
- U.S. household income declines approximately 37% after the male spouse dies.
Source: “The Biggest Retirement Challenges for Women,” US News & World Report, August 2012.
While the loss of a life partner can make women vulnerable emotionally and financially, that’s not to say that you cannot successfully navigate through this painful life stage. To do so, however, requires you to be realistic and holistic. With that in mind, below are key phases of grieving and suggestions for how to get through them.
Phase I: Grief – Take time to cry…and don’t make any big decisions
Losing a spouse, especially one you’ve been with for decades, can be disorienting both physically and emotionally. For so long you’ve had someone with whom to share life’s experiences big and small. Now that your husband is no longer there, the aloneness may feel strange and the silence, deafening. Rather than try to be strong, consider letting yourself feel weak. No doubt memories will flood you with intense feelings of happiness or sadness and, on occasions, both at the same time. Rather than try to repress your emotions, simply learn to let them flow through you. Doing so will allow you to heal more quickly.
Additionally, rather than hole yourself up in your house until you feel more “presentable” to the world, consider reaching out to family and friends for support. Don’t rule out professional help if you feel you need it.
Given your emotional state and the major life adjustment that you are going through, it’s best not to make any big decisions (e.g., sell the house, quit your job, move) soon after the death of your husband. While it may be tempting to think that such changes will help alleviate your sadness, more often than not, they may be a by-product of it. In this early stage of grief, the goal is simply to take one step forward at a time: get up every day and carry on with your typical routine. Such tasks will help anchor you by providing a degree of normalcy.
Phase II: Depression…Heal the spirit through the body
Many great philosophers and thinkers have long argued for the body and mind/spirit connection. Moreover, modern science has yielded extensive research on the positive impacts of exercise on the body and spirit. With the loss of a spouse, grief can easily give way to depression, which could lead to a deeper downward spiral. To stave off this dangerous pattern, consider incorporating more exercise into your routine, if you haven’t done so already. For some, a daily walk may do the trick. While for others, more strenuous activities (e.g., power yoga, brisk walk, light jog) may help release tensions and temper negative emotions. Regardless, consider doing some form of physical activity to keep your body strong and spirit up.
Phase III: Now, take stock of your financial situation
Once you have regained some physical and emotional ground, it’s time to get to business. The loss of a partner will often result in major life and financial decisions. So, gather and review all relevant paperwork: will, bank accounts, investment accounts, Social Security statements, pension statements, property title, life insurance, health insurance, etc. To help you make the right decisions, it’s critical to evaluate where you are financially. Here are some steps to gauge your financial health:
- Calculate the following: assets, liabilities, annual income and expenses moving forward.
- Calculate your net worth: total assets – total liabilities. (A positive number suggest that you’re heading in the right direction while a negative number indicates that you will likely have to make some major life changes (e.g., move in with friends or relatives) to address your new situation.
- Calculate the gap between your annual income and expenses now that you’re on your own.
- If expenses outweigh income, it’s important to determine the drivers of this (expenses). Once you’ve pinpointed the problem(s), decide how best to address it: cut spending, save more, negotiate a higher salary, find a new job, tap into your home equity, sell assets, etc. Determine which options are most accessible and most impactful.
- If you’re still working, consider working longer and saving more.
- If you’re no longer working, understand changes to Social Security eligibility, survivor pension benefits, life insurance (payout) and/or home equity.
For those who may be taking the financial reigns for the first time and do not feel comfortable going at this alone, it may make sense to engage the help of a knowledgeable family member, friend or professional (e.g., accountant, financial advisor).
Phase IV: Move forward
If your situation is complicated and you need more in-depth guidance, the best route may be to seek out the help of a professional. Often, when encountering major life transitions (e.g., death of a spouse, divorce, inheritance), it may be worthwhile to work with an expert. A capable, trusted financial professional may lend greater objectivity, experience and resources in assessing your situation and then recommending the best path forward. Perhaps financial stability may involve downsizing your home and investing a portion of the sales proceeds. Or, it may include maxing out your employer’s retirement plan. Or, it may be rolling your deceased spouse’s IRA into your IRA rather than cashing it out. Your situation will determine which strategies will work best for you. While you are the one ultimately making the decision, a good financial professional will help you make a more informed decision. Still, given the extent of your loss, the best financial expert will, hopefully, first and foremost lend a sympathetic ear.
Love and loss are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. But, that doesn’t mean that loss should lead to depression and destitution. For new widows who take the time to mindfully navigate through the grieving process, crisis can yield greater clarity and rebirth – a stronger, more capable woman.
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