Preparing for Widowhood

Apart from the personal tragedy, widowhood means facing immediate, complicated decisions that will affect you for years to come.

Beverly Lauderdale was born and reared in the Midwest. She was graduated from Simpson College, Indianola, Iowa, with a B.A. degree. After teaching at the junior high school level in Pittsburg, California, she turned to free-lance writing and has had articles published in several magazines.
If you are a married woman in the United States today, you can expect to outlive your husband by nearly ten years, according to recent figures that indicate that approximately two thirds of the older female population live without a spouse.

Although widowhood may be considered the special domain of "senior" women, 10 percent of today's widows have families, bearing responsibility for more than a million children. What then can you—whether young, middle-aged, or elderly—do to prepare yourself for the responsibility of life without your husband?

"Widowhood is a rip-off," Actress Nanette Fabray pointed out in a news paper interview. "Instantly after a husband's death the wife is forced to make decisions that will affect her the rest of her life. Decisions about burial, property taxes, bank accounts, a career.

"She immediately loses her charge accounts. She cannot make loans. . . . No one tells her she can't open their safe-deposit box after her husband's death without an official present. Even checks written by the husband, which haven't cleared the bank, are invalid.

"All debts are immediately due, including house mortgages. Any cash in the bank goes first to pay debts. One out of five survivors ends up flat broke. That's a hard fact."

Much of this can be prevented by working out practical details in advance, in the following areas.

1. Funeral. What type of arrangements does her husband prefer? Put his wishes in writing, listing the plan he out lines. If he prefers a conventional service, record names of pallbearers. Com pile a list of addresses or phone numbers to simplify the task of notifying special friends.

2. Burial. If your husband owns a cemetery lot, specify its location and where documents certifying ownership are placed. If your husband desires other arrangements, such as body-organ donations, spell them out.

3. Obituary. A brief biography attached to the list of instructions eliminates one more problem for you or other family members when you need to provide information for the newspaper notice.

The above-mentioned directions must be accessible—not attached to the will and locked securely in a safe-deposit box. Inform the family or close friends where they are kept.

4. Will. "Make a will, make a will, make a will," so often repeated that it should be drummed into America's consciousness, more often than not is ignored—for less than three out of ten husbands leave wills.

A simple investment of time plus a lawyer's fee can prevent many problems, heartaches, and hardships. A will can be altered when necessary. In fact, lawyers advocate a periodical revision of provisions as economic situations change or as children mature.

Even a handwritten will, signed in the presence of two witnesses, may be regarded as a legal document, assuring a modicum of protection for the survivors. However, seemingly insignificant things can cause such a will to be declared invalid, so one runs a risk in making this kind of will.

5. Assets. An informal list of insurance policies, bank accounts, stocks and bonds, real estate, and any other property investments belong with a will or with funeral-arrangement directions. You should also itemize debts (such as house payments), location of safety-deposit boxes, and name of the family lawyer and/or accountant.

6. Money. Do you now have a special cash account—either savings or personal checking—solely in your name, adequate to cover normal household expenses for up to a month? Most States freeze accounts of the deceased for this length of time. Even a joint account, along with all other assets (including paychecks due), generally cannot be touched for a specific period, depending upon State law. Don't count on ready cash from Social Security, because approximately four months will elapse be fore the first check arrives. Because of this, widows must often approach friends and relatives for money.

What of your husband's pension? Does it include survivor's benefits? Is your State one in which a husband's pension is canceled? Fewer than 3 per cent of the nation's widows receive any money from private-industry plans, be cause their husbands failed to apply for survivor's benefits.

Even more graphic figures have been released by the Life Insurance Agency Management Association and Life Underwriter Training Council. The council's study of 1,744 widows (whose husbands died before age 65) revealed that only 8 percent collected as much as $25,000 from life insurance; the average amounted to $9,150. For every three widows interviewed, one. stated that the family had no financial assets, while half the group had been left with less than $1,000.

Lynn Cain, author of Widow, advocates a "contingency day" in which a husband and wife should review the family financial status. Not only does this help a couple confront the reality that "they won't have each other for ever," but such awareness, she maintains, heightens the now, "reinforcing vows of loving and cherishing."

But whenever you discuss wills and funeral considerations (yours as well as his), evaluate holdings, or decide to establish that single bank account, allow yourself time to think through additional concerns of your particular situation. Example: If you own a home, what, if anything should be done with the property? Do you have a lawyer, one you personally like? Are you satisfied with the treatment and advice you've received at your bank? Are you familiar with all its functions? Become aware of those banks that are instituting women's departments that specialize in explaining money matters to those requiring that service.

More and more women are enrolling in money management or investment courses at colleges or adult night schools, or attending free lectures sponsored in some communities by brokerage firms. By these or other means, do ac quire a fundamental knowledge concerning income and financial options. Crass and material though it may seem, the dollars-and-cents world is of critical importance to the majority of new widows. Financially solvent women are often overwhelmed by insecurity and uncertainty. Some grow distressed at the thought of any expenditure; others lavishly spend all their capital.

Although it is impossible to foresee how one will function with the shock of a loss, those tomorrows can be faced. By building toward emotional preparedness today, the future doesn't have to remain forever bleak. Discover who you are; get to know yourself as a unique individual—a complete entity, who must assess and then develop her own potentiality.

Through class study now, through exploring hobbies now, through the making of friends (not "couple friends" exclusively, but acquaintances valuable to you), a woman takes steps toward standing alone, if the time comes when she has to.

For that woman who has never been employed outside the home, a full- or part-time job when she's left alone may save her sanity. She may find, however, that she isn't qualified to hold a job. What can she do then?

The U.S. Department of Education publishes a directory—available in local libraries—of postsecondary schools with occupational programs. The National Association of Trade and Technical Schools publishes a directory of accredited vocational schools, which can be obtained without charge from NATTS, 2021 L Street NW., Washington, D.C. 20036.

Also, from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402, comes "Job-Finding Techniques for Mature Women" (30 cents) and "Continuing Education Programs for Women" ($1.10), which notes 450 programs by States, Federal funds available for continuing education, and related services designed primarily for adult women.

Investigate job possibilities in your area, study success stories of women who have opened businesses, and be alert to the ever-widening circle of opportunities afforded through volunteer agencies or governmental departments.

The stages of grief

A significant part of emotional readiness is knowing what to expect. Grief has "seasons," experts tell us. The first stage one of merciful shock finds the widow moving numbly, arranging the funeral, distributing possessions, even comforting others throughout an interval lasting from a few hours to a few weeks.

Theresa A. Morse, in Life Is for Living, recommends, if possible, seeking counseling quickly from a qualified ex pert (not from a well-meaning friend or family member) who will know how to deal with a reactive depression. She notes further that many in the medical field believe that if a widow consults a professional for even six visits, depression might be prevented altogether.

As actuality pierces the self-protective shield, guilt intrudes. Real guilt feelings mingle with the imagination to produce stressful thoughts of "If only I'd . . ."

Anger, too, surges through the unsuspecting survivor. Don't be surprised or resist—it's normal to be mad at your husband. Aren't you alone, trying to handle multitudinous affairs?

What else lies ahead? Perhaps a period of total confusion, forgetfulness, physical uncoordination, and crying jags. Accordingly, take this advice: Don't make any major decisions for the first six months of widowhood—a time of emotional instability.

This is also a time when one can be extra vulnerable to physical illness. From slight to serious health problems plague a large percentage of new widows. With emotional and physical health so interrelated, it is common for an emotionally stressed organism to develop physical problems. If you don't have a good doctor, locate one with whom you share rapport and make an appointment for a complete physical examination. Because many widows find food unappealing or fall into bad habits when eating singly, you should keep in mind nutritional guidelines and be sure to consume a well-balanced diet.

Cruel as it sounds, widows generally encounter estrangement from other women for a variety of reasons. Death is frightening. People tend to avoid what ever reminds them of human mortality. Also, fearing their husbands will interest you or vice versa, some wives view widows as threats. Envy characterizes those who admire your sudden freedom. And, frankly, in our couple-oriented society, a widow presents an uncomfortable commodity.

Does it sound like a nightmare? Money matters and near insanity, loss of old friends and untold decisions? De spite all of this, be assured that hope is the last stage, as exemplified by the comments of Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie: "I survived some of the worst things that can happen to people." Within three years she suffered the deaths of her mother, her son, and her husband.

Countless people, having traveled the journey of bereavement, attest, "Healing comes." There'll be a day when you're aware of the gentle breeze, when you notice others, when you start answering a nudge of curiosity. At that moment you're heading toward a new level. Whether that emerging woman is a stronger, deeper individual depends on you. But having embarked on this lonely journey with some guidelines for man aging and understanding exterior and interior conditions, the chances of ending grief more rapidly and entering upon a beautiful second chapter of life are excellent.


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Beverly Lauderdale was born and reared in the Midwest. She was graduated from Simpson College, Indianola, Iowa, with a B.A. degree. After teaching at the junior high school level in Pittsburg, California, she turned to free-lance writing and has had articles published in several magazines.

September 1980

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