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Tips for Navigating A Difficult Time
Life is full of learning moments, some within our control, and some not. My life changed literally in the blink of an eye with the unexpected loss of my husband. I learned many lessons when I became a widow.
Fate Has a Way of Putting People in Your Path
I was introduced to a financial analyst that worked with family but whom I had never met in person a month prior to my husband’s passing. And, I met an attorney who specializes in corporate business. Oddly, I also met the kindest grievance counselor at my synagogue during my first week of a minyan. At a time when I needed professional help, those introductions turned out to be extremely helpful.
Go Easy on Yourself
When you unexpectedly become a widow, it throws you into a tailspin. I had no idea how to plan a funeral. A large part of me felt paralyzed and unable to move forward. This is not the time to make any major decisions that are unnecessary.
I spent many of those days doing mundane, repetitive tasks. That monotony kept my mind occupied. Listening to music allowed me to tune out the noise in my head.
If you are trying to have some privacy but want to get out of the house, pick places where you may not run into people you know. I went to an unfamiliar location for groceries for the first month so I could avoid running into casual acquaintances. The very last thing I wanted was awkward inquiries about what happened. I did feel like talking about what it felt like to be a widow. Surprisingly, I was asked that on more than one occasion.
Taking Care of The Important Stuff
You do not have to address everything right away. As a normally strong, independent woman, it was challenging to have to depend on so many people for help. Any of the difficulties of that year (and there were many), I simply put them in a metaphorical box to be opened at a later date. I know it does not seem possible, but try not to overwhelm yourself with a long list of everything that needs to be done. Some things can, and should, absolutely wait.
The First Year
I was blessed in that one sister specializes in trust and estates and another sister specializes in corporate accounting. It made a huge difference both emotionally and financially to have their expertise. Both told me upfront that closing the estate would take a year. That was the hardest thing to hear. It is difficult to imagine that for an entire year, I would need to handle all the business, financial and personal details. And they were right. On its own, the first year will be the hardest. It is a year filled with nothing but firsts… first Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and New Year’s, first Father’s Day, first birthday, first anniversary. I was more anxious thinking of a way to shield my daughters from the pain of these firsts than I did shielding myself.
To this day, it still is surreal every time I am filling out a document that asks for my marital status. Checking off that widow box felt unnatural.
I went for counseling for the first four months. Looking back, I definitely encourage others to seek therapy from an objective professional. For the first year, my decisions were largely influenced by how I was feeling that day. There were many decisions I made that, in hindsight, I wish I would have put off until a clearer mind could prevail.
We also tried to find some semblance of normalcy. My husband passed two weeks before my youngest daughter was starting her senior year of high school. Her sister and I took her to UM for a college tour. We went out to dinner with my sisters for the first time shortly after he passed even smiling for the picture. We got word that our smiling seemed inappropriate. I am here to tell you that anytime you find a way to smile, then go ahead and do that. Don’t listen to those that judge. We had so little to smile about for many long weeks.
In fact, there are not many photos of me from those first few weeks. I’m pretty certain that no one wants to see what a mess they were. I lived it, I remember it to this day but I don’t need to see photos. I imagine it is an odd choice to use a photo of my girls and me smiling along with a blog about becoming a widow. But that was the first time we went out of the house in weeks. And it was the first time we smiled together. That photo represents that we would be okay.
And, my older daughter and I threw her sister an 18th birthday party at Sugar in Miami. That’s a big milestone birthday and we wanted to make it memorable for her.
Life goes on after a loss and you need to find a way to go on as well. I am certain that their father would have wanted them to enjoy life and fill it with experiences, laughter, happiness.
Lessons Learned When You Find Yourself Suddenly Widowed
- How strong you are – One of my favorite sayings is “Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. Strength comes from overcoming the things you thought you couldn’t.” The truth about gaining strength is that it comes in moments where you keep going when you may not have thought you could. And those moments build upon each other until you look back and realize that you made it through. I won’t say it isn’t tough or emotional, but I assure you, you will emerge from the darkness and learn to enjoy life.
- How to appreciate the small things in life. The small annoyances that may have bothered you in the past, now are insignificant.
- Don’t judge yourself harshly, especially on days when you don’t feel like getting dressed, showered, out of bed. There will be difficult days where you are angry, sad, depressed. That’s really okay.
- By the same token, if you want to go out to dinner with friends and family, that’s okay too. The unsaid expectation of how and what a widow does should not matter to you. There is not a widow’s rulebook that says only dress in black or don’t wear makeup or dress nicely or do your hair. If you feel like laughing, then laugh. In the mood to dance, then dance. Need to scream, then scream (preferably when no one else can hear you). And when you want to cry, then cry.
- Don’t throw or give away anything major including documents for at least one year. You will experience the gamut of emotions- tbh I ashamedly threw away a lot of paperwork that was in my husband’s home office because I did not want to look at it when, in hindsight, they were papers I could have used.
- Don’t make life-changing plans for at least six months or better, one year. Your judgment is often clouded. Mentally and emotionally, a year later much of your perspective has changed.
- Let your closest circle of friends and family help you out; you don’t have to be strong for everyone. Many people want to offer help but don’t know what you need or what to say. Accept their help graciously and know everyone comes from a good place with the best of intentions.
Financial & Legal Lessons
Some of these are Florida-specific and some are important regardless of where you reside. I am not a lawyer and every state’s laws are different and constantly evolving.
- Place a death notice on one of the deceased person’s credit reports. They will report it to the other two so you do not have to contact all three. This prevents any identity theft in the deceased name.
- Contact the social security office. Pre-pandemic I had to make an appointment and bring documentation including a death certificate. Order at least 5 copies, more if you have several financial institutions you may need to change to your name. For children under 18 years of age, there are death benefits they may be eligible to receive on a monthly basis until the age of 18.
- You may need to wait to get access to financial accounts that were in both names. It took me almost five months before I had full access to all of our finances. Some of this had to do with the way the account was titled but it does not happen overnight. If you have a trusted family member or friend that can help you with this, let them. It can be a very frustrating process.
- You are not responsible to pay any credit cards or other creditors that are solely in the name of the deceased person. Expect that the credit card companies will call and tell you this while also asking about the estate because they too want to get their money. The surviving spouse gets reimbursed first from the estate before any and all monies are distributed to any potential creditors.
- Keep copies, even better, a spreadsheet, of all the money you use to cover expenses. This becomes important when it comes to settling the estate. This could be business expenses and, expenses associated with the death such as funeral expenses, clergy, food, travel expenses, and so on.
- Depending on your personal circumstances, you may need to hire legal and financial representation, including lawyers, accountants, or financial advisors.
- Make sure you update your documents. This includes all legal docs including a Living Will, Healthcare Proxy, HPPA Authorization, and Durable Power of Attorney.
- In Florida, there is a one-time benefit of up to $500 on your property tax when you become a widow. My sister had me file for this exemption early on and I found it so strange that here I just became a widow and its value is $500. SMH.
Search for something that gives you strength. It could be counseling, prayer, faith, journaling, meditation, exercise- it is different for everyone. To restore my inner balance, I worked really hard. Meditations, reading positive affirmations, prayer and yoga became part of my regimen. It allowed me to restore my center.
Eventually, you will have more good days than bad days. I was told that grieving is a process with many stages. Honestly, it is not a linear process. You may take steps forward only to find days where you feel you are back where you started. I’ve heard analogies to grief being like the ocean where it comes in waves and sometimes the water is perfectly flat. But eventually, you will adjust. And, you will learn to appreciate and enjoy life with all of its nuances.