You’re a Widow, Now What? — What do do when your husband dies.
How to deal with finances, brain fog, and finding help
My husband died, and I’m unsure how to manage the money. How do I prioritize all the things that need to be done and survive this overwhelming and painful grief?
You’re a widow. Now what? You may have known it was coming, or you may have been surprised, but in one moment, a heart stopped beating –and you were left alone in the world, suddenly single.
Maybe you’ve lost half your income or more. You may be unsure what to do next and feel confused, forgetful, or hopeless. You might be uncertain how to get help or whether you will ever feel happy again. Grief is both hard and hard work. It’s impossible to make grief tidy or predictable. Grief is as individual as love: every life, every path, is unique, and so is the business of healing.
A Holocaust survivor in the BBC series, “Call the Midwife,” shared advice with a grief-stricken nurse whose fiancé had just died. “You will feel better than this. Maybe not yet. But you will. You just keep living until you’re alive again. ”
Living with grief can feel like running an obstacle course. Knowing where the obstacles are can help us get around them. We’ll talk about three of the biggest in this article: financial decisions, brain fog, and the pain of loss.
Pursuing Financial Wellness
At Wise Stewardship Financial Planning, we spend a lot of time working one-on-one with widows in their grief journey. That’s because Daniel Kopp, Certified Financial Planner and Financial Therapist, is no stranger to grief. (Read about his grief journey as a widower on the About Page ) His work entails a holistic approach incorporating traditional financial planning with value-based strategies that help you design a customized financial plan.
Aligning every part of your financial life with your values develops a roadmap for goal-setting. We spend a lot of time asking questions like, “What’s important to you?” What are your hopes and dreams? How can you be more intentional about spending or saving for what you value?
Knowing our values is one tool in the chest. The other is knowing what drives your money behavior. An exciting new approach to money management called Financial Therapy borrows lessons and interventions from the world of mental health. It can answer why we feel anxiety over money. Why we’re afraid to spend it, or why we don’t save.
Each of us has unique money stories, with “scripts” that live in our subconscious, dictating how we interact with money. We learned them in childhood from attitudes and behaviors observed in our parents and grandparents. These scripts were mainly caught rather than taught, meaning we learned the rules without knowing it.
As adults, most of us take these beliefs for granted without considering how they form our relationship with money. Studies by Dr. Brad Klontz show four primary money relationships or scripts that drive human behavior:
Money avoidance causes people to feel uncomfortable with money. They may hold negative views about rich people, believe that money corrupts, and equate having less money with virtue. Due to this strong discomfort, money-avoidant people tend to have lower incomes and net worth and have challenging relationships with money.
Money worship means believing that money solves all your problems and is the key to happiness. People with money worship scripts think they can never have enough money and can often engage in self-destructive financial behavior such as workaholism.
Money status usually equates net worth with self-worth. People who follow money status scripts will only purchase new things. Money status scripts are sometimes associated with destructive financial behavior like overspending or taking on large amounts of debt.
Money vigilance can create anxiety about saving for the future. Money-vigilant people can be secretive about their wealth and tend to be frugal. Money vigilance is often associated with higher net worth and wealth but not always more happiness.
When it comes to labels, we all operate on a sliding scale, but one of these likely reflects your thoughts and tendencies more than the others. Try not to think of them as things that make you “right” or “wrong.” Instead, think of them as behavioral patterns; knowing about them can help you change your relationship with money, which can help you feel less out of control.
Research correlates financial wellness with overall well-being. Money troubles, on the hand, are connected to health issues like anxiety and depression, making grief much harder.
Creating a Framework for Brain Fog
Brain fog, sometimes called widow’s brain, can be debilitating. The passing of a spouse causes losses beyond their death. Their absence means that virtually every area of your life changes. Your morning and bedtime rituals, meals, chores, and mutual interactions with family, friends, and neighbors are forever altered. In addition to being flooded with grief, your brain is now bombarded with change. The neurological markers that create habits and hold routines together no longer function the same.
It’s normal to experience cognitive changes. Brain fog feels like a thick fog in your head, separating you from the rest of life—especially the life you once knew. If you have brain fog, you may experience some or all of the following:
Forgetfulness (misplacing your keys more than usual)
Short-term memory problems (forgetting what you ate for breakfast or what was said in the last conversation you had)
Distraction or hyperfocus
Walking through grief is hard work. Some studies, including one by Modern Widows Club, find that more than nine out of 10 widows experience brain fog. You may find it challenging to get out of bed in the morning, take care of the family, or go back to work. Everyone is different, so one-size-fits-all advice isn’t always helpful.
We often hear, “Don’t make any major decisions for the first year.” If only we, as widowed people, had that luxury because the truth is, some decisions need to be made now. Some decisions must be made soon, and others can be put off until later.
A “thinking partner” such as Wise Stewardship Financial Planning can help sort through the decision-making process. Choices that impact finances can sometimes be particularly complicated. When should the mortgage be paid off? When does income need to be replaced? Is retirement possible now? A fee-only financial advisor can help organize your timeline.
You can also use a pen and paper to visualize a thought framework. Draw three columns and label them “Now,” “Soon,” and “Later.” Some of the things you list in each column will be obvious. Other things may not be apparent. And with the impairment of brain fog that lasts at least six months or more, getting help from various sources to map your Now, Soon, Later Plan may be one of the most important things you do for your protection and healing.
Finding Your Path to Healing
Is there someone you trust right now to help you identify other sources of help to heal emotionally, spiritually, socially, and financially? Ask them to help you sort through your thoughts. A trusted friend, family member, clergy, or professional can assist you in organizing your Now, Soon, Later framework so you can do what you need to do at your own pace.
Churches and community groups are good sources for grief counseling. You can find many online grief communities on Facebook pages. Check out Soaring Spirits International, Modern Widows Club, and our resources page for other ideas. You also can usually find GriefShare communities close to home that provide a good connection for relationships with people going through the grief process like you—especially when relationships change.
Also know that friends may fall away. It’s not uncommon for friend groups of couples to grow distant from a new widow after her spouse dies. Sometimes they feel uncomfortable. As a widow, you may feel like a third wheel, and the change is as painful as all the other changes you didn’t choose. Not everyone, however, will grow distant.
Try to look for the surprises of joy you never planned in people and in the memories that help you maintain a connection with what was lost while moving forward with the life you still have. Embrace a strategy for dealing with finances, brain fog, and healing at your own pace.
One day you too will feel alive again.