When Your Spouse Passes Away

A few days ago, I received an utterly heartbreaking email from a reader whose husband had passed away a week ago. She is in her fifties and has two grown children who are fully independent. One of them lives nearby and is helping her get her life back in order, but it’s going to be a long process.

Mostly, this reader wanted to know what information I had found in my many years of writing about personal finances that relates to handling this situation. What does she do now? How does she put her life back together, financially and otherwise?

This is not a situation I have any personal familiarity with, nor do I want to for a very, very long time. I have seen relatives and friends struggle with this very situation, however, and there are some standard financial and personal steps people should take in this situation.

There are many, many great lists out there that cover the specific things that a spouse should do in the immediate aftermath of a spouse’s death. I particularly like DailyFinance’s list of eight things to do after a loved one passes:

1. Get Multiple Copies of the Death Certificate
2. Obtain Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration
3. Consult a Lawyer – Even if You Decide Not to Hire One
4. Collect and Secure Pertinent Documents
5. Notify Financial Institutions, Government Agencies and Others
6. Cancel or Transfer Accounts, Memberships and Subscriptions
7. Apply for Benefits Due to Survivors
8. Pay Final Bills and Guard Against Financial Fraud

Those are all great steps, but they also don’t consider the personal challenges that someone goes through when they lose a spouse, particularly one that the person has spent a majority of their life with. Here are some additional tactics I would add to this list.

Ask for help

When you lose your spouse, do not be afraid to ask other loved ones for as much help as you need, particularly in the first few months. If you can’t bear to clean out a closet, ask for help. If you can’t bear to go through some documents, ask for help.

Rely on them for a while. Don’t worry about feeling as though you’re “taking advantage” of them. If you do feel that way, simply make sure that you pay them back by allowing them to “take advantage” of you later on in their time of need.

The song Lean on Me by Bill Withers is so beautifully accurate.

Let the tears flow

It’s never a good idea to isolate the memory of any loved one. You should remember the good things that person did and the light that person brought into your life. There will be pain at first because you miss that person, but the pain will pass with time and particularly with recollection.

Rather than avoiding thought of that person and “toughening up,” be comfortable admitting to yourself that you miss that person. If that causes you to cry or have some other form of non-destructive emotional outlet, let it out.

When you do that, you’re healing yourself. You’re making it much easier to deal with the rest of your life.

Keep a personal checklist

There are many, many little tasks that come up during this process. Grab a legal pad and a pen and start a checklist. Keep it out on the table all the time and add things as they come into your mind – and check them off as they’re handled.

Some of these things might be big. Some of them might be small. Some of them might be useful. Other ones might be a product of a weary mind. Get them out of your head and down on paper so that they’re not hanging over you. You can ask your helping friends to deal with them.

As time goes on, you’ll find it easier and easier to deal with the items on the list yourself.

Start defining short-term and eventually long-term goals

Your life is different now. You have the chance to reshape it however you wish. What will that look like?

It’s painful to think about it at first, so focus on short term goals. Try setting a goal of reading a powerful book or completing a small professional project. When you achieve that first goal, work on another one, then another one.

After that, start considering longer-term goals. What do you want to achieve over the next year or two? Have you ever thought about a different career path or about starting a business? Have you ever thought about diving head-first into a brand new major hobby, like painting (my great-grandmother dove into painting in her seventies, after all)?

A goal gives you a direction forward from where you find yourself today. It gives you something to look at in the distance instead of hovering on how you feel right now.

There are many specific personal finance tasks to take care of after your spouse passes, but those tasks are just one piece of the process of rebuilding your life.

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