How widows can lead a rewarding life after grief and growth

Five years after my husband died, I wrote in my journal: “I am so much more than just a widow. I’m a thriving independent woman!”

Yes, I was firmly in Stage 3 of widowhood — transformation — after navigating the first two phases of grief and growth. Like many other women who also have also experienced the terrible ache of widowhood, the third phase was quite gratifying for me.

This is when a widow is past the painfully vulnerable and confusing grief of Stage 1. There, she focused on immediate needs, applied for death benefits, checked her cash flow and didn’t make big, irrevocable financial decisions. In yoga terms, it was simply a time to breathe.

Moving into Stage 2 (growth), a widow takes care of financial business beyond the basics: updating her will and beneficiary forms, evaluating investments for appropriateness, making necessary changes with insurance coverage, deciding whether to stay in her house or relocate, and considering pre- or post-retirement choices.

If a widow has minor children, she thinks about money implications as a single-parent family. A widow’s life begins to feel more in balance during this growth stage.

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The final stage for a woman after her spouse’s death is a time of fulfillment — transformation. This can be a very meaningful time.

Often new purposes and interests evolve as she learns to embrace life without her spouse. She’s ready for more advanced wealth-management issues, including legacy planning and future family bequests. This may include a living trust.

A charitable component may be added to her estate plan. She also considers special family related decisions, such as helping with grandchildren’s education expenses or assisting an adult child with a start-up business venture.

Psychic income

Finding her new focus in life can become a special joy. This may be her extended family. If she’s not yet retired, professional work can provide much more than a paycheck. Supportive colleagues and a sense of accomplishment are important “psychic income.”

Perhaps her congregation, synagogue or nonprofit group offer meaningful volunteer activities, giving a widow a unique sense of intention.

For me, writing and speaking about widows and their financial issues become my passion, my mission. Indeed, this focus of helping my “widowed sisters” and their financial advisors became an important part of my own healing process.

Spending time with friends and family or taking on a new, enjoyable hobby may bring happiness to a widow during Stage 3. She’ll want to budget accordingly, taking into consideration some increased costs for these activities.

Don’t be a purse

Certainly, a widow may welcome a new romantic relationship in her life during this chapter. If you’re a widow who decides to date again, be careful about a potential mate who expects you to be their purse, providing financial stability for them.

Be careful about intentions of suitors who think you’re a soft touch. Our research showed that many widows, especially mature women, may be susceptible to unhealthy advances.

Keep money matters to yourself until you get to know the other person well. If a special relationship evolves into remarriage, a widow can consider asking her attorney to prepare a prenuptial agreement.

Likewise, if it’s a committed long-term relationship, she’ll want to talk about how the money will be handled with her partner — separate, blended or both types of accounts. A widow’s financial planner can provide helpful guidance here.

Leave your own legacy

During Stage 3, what I refer to as “legacy lifeprint,” activities can be gratifying. These actions involve sharing a widow’s stories, values and gifts for future generations. (Some of these activities are also referred to as legacy wills or legacy letters.)

They can take several forms, including print, photo, video and audio recordings or documents. It might be a scrapbook, painting, memory book, cookbook of favorite family recipes, video and more. A special charitable component may also be included.

For example, several years after my friend Judy’s husband died, she expanded her legacy planning to benefit her family in a distinctive way. Working with her local community foundation, she created a fund that will pay an income to her two children after she passes on. They will each receive an annual check on or about their birthday every year. She thinks this is a great gift that will keep giving throughout her children’s lives.

These fulfilling activities can make Stage 3 a rich time in a widow’s life.

Kathleen M. Rehl

financial planner and author

After all those “birthday annuity” checks have been distributed, the remaining principal will be given to the university where Judy and her husband met years ago. At that time, a scholarship fund will memorialize their names at their school. Putting this future gift in place also made Judy an immediate member of the foundation’s Heritage Society.

That includes invitations to attend social events. (On a technical note, this gift will be funded with a portion of Judy’s individual retirement account after she passes on. There will be no tax due on the transfer of this asset to the nonprofit community foundation.)

Judy wrote a legacy letter to her children, sharing some of her history about how she and her late husband appreciated their university, which brought them together. She also tucked in a sentimental picture of herself and their father taken on that campus.

Her letter emphasized how happy she was to put plans in place for the scholarship fund that would carry their names forward forever after paying income to her children for life. As Judy said, “I feel like I’m having my cake and eating it, too, with this gift plan.”

These and other fulfilling activities can make Stage 3 a rich time in a widow’s life. She will always love her husband, and she will have his love forever, just in a different way during widowhood.

Yes, she has loved. Yes, she has lost a lifestyle with her prior husband. But it is possible for her to move forward into a transformed life that is highly meaningful.

— By Kathleen M. Rehl, Ph.D., certified financial planner and author of “Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows.”

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