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Field Work

Widows: Manage Your Grief, Finances

Kathleen Rehl’s husband died in February 2007, two months after his cancer diagnosis. She has taken on the mission of helping other widows process their grief, while they slowly assume the new financial responsibilities of widowhood. Rehl, who is 72, is a former financial planner, speaker, and author of “Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows.” She explains the three stages of widowhood – and advises women to take each stage at their own pace.

Question: Why focus on widows?

Rehl: After a husband dies, and whether it’s unexpected or a long-lingering death, there is a numb period. Some widows refer to it as “my jello brain” or “my widow’s brain.” It’s a result of how the body processes grief. The broken heart syndrome is actually real. After a death, the immune system is compromised, and chronic inflammation can happen. It’s hard to sleep at night and there can be digestive difficulties. Memory can be short, attention spans weakened, and thinking downright difficult. You’ve got this grief, and yet the widow might think, “What do I have to do?” The best thing she can do initially is nothing.

Q: Why nothing?

Rehl: I talk about the three stages of widowhood: grief, growth, grace. At first, she’s so vulnerable that if she’s making irrevocable decisions immediately, they may not be in her best interest. The only immediate things she might need to do are file for benefits like Social Security and life insurance and make sure the bills are still being paid.  All widows need to take care of these essential financial matters. But major decisions should be delayed. I knew one widow whose son said, “Move in with us.” That would’ve been a really bad decision, because she didn’t get along with the daughter-in-law, and it would’ve introduced another type of grief – loss of place, loss of friends. Then her son got a job in Silicon Valley and moved away.

Or a widow deposits her life insurance in the bank, and a helpful teller says, “I think Fred in our wealth management department down the hall can see you because you need to do something with your money.” Fred sells her a financial product she doesn’t understand, and two or three months later, when she’s coming out of her grief, she thinks, “What did I buy?” One widow came to me who had locked her money into a deferred annuity that wasn’t going to pay out for years, and she needed the money now.

Q: With most women working today, aren’t they better equipped than previous generations of widows to handle the finances?

Rehl: This is somewhat true. But our research shows that even though a lot of gals are working and have their 401(k)s, it’s often the husband who handles the big-picture stuff – where the records are located, why the money is in this brokerage account, and how much to take out of the 401(k) every year when they’re retired. Our research showed that many women lack financial confidence after the husband’s death. There has been some improvement, but there’s still a long way to go.

Q: What can widows do to protect themselves in the most vulnerable stage, immediately after losing a husband?

Rehl: When I was a financial planner, I would teach women that, in early grief, they were going to get all kinds of advice from financial salespeople, relatives, and friends. I’d have them practice saying, “Thank you for your suggestions but it’s way too soon. I’m talking to my adviser about the best uses of my resources and I’m not ready to make a decision right now.” One widow printed that out and put it right by her phone, because relatives from out-of-state were calling her and saying, “I’ve got this stock for you to invest in …”

Q: You said the second phase of widowhood is the growth phase. What happens then?

Rehl: Basic planning is completed. She’ll have to look at the investments. They may’ve been good for them as a couple but not for her alone. There will be tax implications if she takes money out of an IRA. A pastor’s wife who was losing her tax-free housing had to look at her tax situation before making decisions. Important choices also depend on whether the widow is already retired or looking at retiring. One woman said she couldn’t work anymore, and I very gently had conversations with her about why work was important. She needed that income, and the numbers didn’t work for an early retirement.

Women who discover that they can’t manage after the reduction in pension and Social Security income that follows a husband’s death may have to find a part-time job or rent out a room. She might also want to find ways to economize, whether informing family that she can no longer afford birthday and holiday gifts or taking advantage of what the community offers, such as free concerts and library books and movies.

Some elderly widows may relocate to a retirement community, or it might be appropriate to move closer to family. Others – like me – do cocooning. I didn’t want to sell my house, because my late husband and I built that together. But I did want to change the house to make what had been our house into my house.

Q: What is the grace stage?

Rehl: The grief is subsiding. That’s when long-term planning happens. It’s a time of fulfillment. There may be new friends, interests, or causes. Some widows set up or support non-profits and memorials in memory of their former spouse. It’s a time to redesign your life. There might be special family issues or a business involved. On the estate planning side, widows are sharing their stories and aspirations for their children and grandchildren through legacy planning.

Q: How long does it takes to go through all three stages?

Rehl: Even I, who am a widow, never say to another widow, “I know exactly where you are.” When I was a financial planner, even if I had some idea of which stage my former clients were in, I let them self-identify where they were. It’s different for every widow. For example, a former client’s husband died suddenly playing tennis, and it took her almost a year to move from heavy grief into the growth stage. Both were in their early 60s. Another client’s husband died, but the couple were in their 80s. They had always said Bob was living on borrowed time. He had dementia. They knew his death was coming, so she’d already done part of her grieving. She was ready to move into that growth stage more quickly.

Q: How do women know they’ve entered the grace stage?

Rehl: Not all women get to that third stage. But for those who make it to the grace stage, it’s very fulfilling to see a new life evolve. No matter what stage they’re in, they’re concerned about feeling financially secure. But the middle growth stage is comfortable. It took me five or six years to get to the grace stage. At one point, I wrote in my journal, “I am so much more than widow.” It takes years to get to that point.

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5 Responses to Widows: Manage Your Grief, Finances

  1. MaryV says:

    Wow! Very timely interview since I have only been a widow since February 2018. I’m still muddling through. The bulk of the insurance money is sitting in a savings account while I decide what’s next. I have had to spend some considerable money on repairs and projects that my husband would have done himself. I have also met with a financial adviser who recommended that I monitor investment funds via Fidelity for several months before I decide how to invest the insurance money and IRA account for the long term, and then met with him again in about 6 months when I’m ready to make those decisions. Based on my experience thus far, I know that I will need to keep a certain amount of financial liquidity just to keep my house in order. Finding trust worthy, reliable people to take care of electrical, plumbing and handyman services has also been a challenge. My whole life has changed and I have no one to lean on but myself. This is my new reality. But knowing I am not alone– that there are widows everywhere going through the same thing is oddly comforting. Does that make any sense?

    • Mary,

      You’re correct in saying that you’re not alone on this journey. Definitely not fun. You may find it helpful to talk with other widows like you. Soaring Spirits International, a nonprofit serving widowed persons, has local chapters across the country. Likewise, Modern Widows Club has groups that meet regularly. Good that you’re setting aside a money pot for repairs and projects. Taking your time to invest the insurance and IRA money after you decide what this money will be used for is also good. Best not to rush.

  2. Mike Roberts says:

    Its tough enough dealing with the loss of a spouse without also dealing with financial stress. Often financial circumstances don’t allow one to work through the stages of grief. Unfortunately, the bills don’t stop coming in. That’s why I think it’s so important to have a community of people you trust around you, whether in your neighborhood, church, family, etc. Such people shouldn’t necessarily be relied upon for financial advice because many may not be qualified to give it, but they can at least help provide feedback about whether or not a decision is a good one.

  3. neil says:

    I have talked to many widows that regretted not working with their spouse to organize the records and contact information. There are several options…My Life Directory, Everplans, The Survivor Guide and others. Trying to find everything needed to carry on at an emotional time is unfortunate when it can be prevented. Also this information is needed when an accident, stroke, major illness happens. Widows should prepare the same records for their family.

  4. Good advice, Neil.

    Although love lasts forever, life doesn’t. One member of a couple will die first, leaving a surviving spouse behind. (A simultaneous death is rare.) So, it’s important to have conversations before that death. Are the beneficiaries up-to-date on wills and trusts? What about named beneficiaries of life insurance and retirement plans? Where are passwords and PINs stored? Are advanced health directives in place? What about special wishes for a funeral or memorial service…and so much more.

    Getting plans in place is a beautiful gift to give family and friends, rather than leaving a mess behind.

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