It’s never easy to move forward after loss, but take baby steps & cover the essentials to ease the transition.
Most of us are not comfortable speaking about death and dying (which we addressed in a March 9 blog). But even more challenging is the conversation focusing on what to do after you lose a loved one. For ourselves, despite our different scenarios of divorce after 31 years of marriage and death after a 42-year marriage, we found a set of steps that helped us return to the land of the living after being blindsided by our losses.
In fact, nearly every day, we hear the angst, anxiety and tearfulness in friends’ voices and read it in their emails and texts if they’ve just divorced or a spouse has died. They feel overwhelmed by the sorrow and what lies ahead. What’s next? They may find it far easier to crawl back into bed and hide under the covers rather than try to re-enter life alone.
The equally significant issues that many face are how do they begin to handle their own finances if they’ve never done so. Will they be able to stay in their homes? Pay the medical bills? Keep on the heat? Or what if they’ve never lived alone, gone to a movie, symphony or party alone when everyone else is in twos, made a major purchase—investment or a new car, hired a contractor and kept on him to finish a job, mowed a lawn, or figured out how to turn off the outside water come winter and turn it back on come spring?
Let’s not forget their mental state. They are living through the fog of what happened and are grieving. There are the incessant meltdowns, the desire to shut off themselves from everyone, loss of appetite or the opposite—craving for carbs and sweets and totally ignoring any form of exercise for lack of energy. Crawling under the covers doesn’t count as a work out.
And how do they handle the depression? Take anti-depressants? Go for therapy and take meds? Many are angry in addition to being sad. Their lives have meandered from the path they envisioned. Some tend to withdraw or, when there are others around, lash out at them in frustration at some of the well-meaning but inane questions or comments they may make.
This begs the question: Is there a set of prescribed steps to take to come to terms with loss? Yes, we’ve discovered. Through trial and error and many tears, we found compartmentalizing all the challenges helped, then making lists, tackling each task one at a time, and finding experts to guide us, those who went through similar situations and are knowledgeable about what needs to be done.
Here are six ways to start charting your new course, with much more detailed information contained in our book, Suddenly Single after 50, and our weekly blog, www.lifelessonsat50plus.com. There is no timetable for grief, but we think, when ready, our list might help those who have experienced loss feel more empowered.
Legal. Early on—possibly within a few days or a week, you should meet with your trusts and estates attorney to read the will if your spouse died, or a matrimonial attorney if your spouse has announced he’s leaving. Gather together paperwork detailing your finances and a will/trust if there’s been a death and meet in person to go over what you own and owe. The two scenarios require different courses of action, but the bottom line is the same. You need legal counsel to move through either process and find sound financing for the future.
Ask in advance what the hourly rates are, what other costs are included i.e. copying, emails, phone calls and texts and an estimate of what your overall costs may be. Also, decide if the chemistry is good since you’ll be spending a lot of time together. If you don’t have an attorney, ask friends, family, or check the American Bar Association list in your area.
Finances. Maybe, you were the family bookkeeper who knew exactly what funds came in monthly and went out for payments on your house, at the grocery store, for the lawn guy, for gas, and so on. But if not and your spouse was the family chief financial officer, no point in getting upset with yourself. You can now take it over and do a good job. That even includes doing your taxes.
If you don’t know what you have financially, where your money is invested and if there’s any life insurance, check tax documents, bank statements and checkbook register. You might want to meet with a financial professional and/or a tax person to help you sort out your finances. Before you meet, pull together a list of assets and liabilities and your income from various sources and expenses. It helps to know what funds come in monthly and how much goes out to develop a budget.
Don’t panic if you have less than you think. As a rule of thumb, don’t sell your house in the first year after loss. Decisions made then might not be the best. At the same time, every situation is unique, and depends on what planning was set in place. Yet the factors involved follow the same thread: redefining the cost of maintaining one’s lifestyle, sticking to a budget, and having the confidence to know that this is a snapshot in time.
There’s plenty of good software available to help shore up finances rather than use lined sheets of legal yellow paper. If you’re not tech literate, this is a good time to learn. Hire a computer guru to come to your home; most charge an hourly rate or take a course (usually free) at your public library or local community center. If you don’t own a laptop, now is the time to have someone help you buy one. Your child or grandchild might be a good teacher once you buy the computer, though it’s best to work with an outsider who’s less likely to get upset with you and your learning curve.
Once you have a blueprint of your expenses and assets, you can plan and see if you need to cut anywhere.
Physical. It’s so easy to become a couch or “bed” potato, live your life in jammies or sweats and forget how important some physical exercise can be for your health and mental outlook. The endorphins released when you exercise will get you going. You don’t have to think about training for a marathon or big climb, but do something daily, from walking in your neighborhood for a good 20 minutes, to hitting the gym and taking a class or walking on the treadmill, swimming, doing yoga or Pilates or playing tennis. The additional advantage of doing something outside your home is that you’ll be around people. You may also engage in some conversation and make some new friends.
Social. Science has found that isolation is unhealthy. We need to be around others and converse to thrive. But how do you begin especially if your spouse was the more social person in your duo? He made the dates for Saturday night dinners; he convinced you to go to that boring Christmas party each year, which you usually did end up enjoying. And he drove the two of you to the symphony each month.
Are you going to stay home and re-watch episodes of The Crown, and Call the Midwife all alone now? Maybe, when you’re first on your own, but at some point, you should start thinking about getting out, especially after the invites to join others after your loss start to dry up. And sadly, they usually will.
How do you begin? Consider inviting your closest circle over who were kind. If you don’t like to cook, order in pizza or hire a caterer. What you serve is far less important than the fact you are bringing people together. If you have a pair of tickets for the symphony or free movie passes, call up and invite a friend or get a third and invite a couple.
Join a support group, which is a great way to connect. Members don’t have to become your best friends but can become a coffee or wine buddy. Find an activity you’ve never pursued and try that, too; maybe, painting, cooking, knitting, and traveling. Many groups encourage single travelers and waive single room charges. If that idea is daunting, try a short trip alone rather than some two-week adventure overseas. If there are certain events you don’t feel up to—such as a wedding alone, send a lovely gift and your regrets. This is not a time for “should” to rule your world.
Emotional. Grief of any kind takes years to get in check. Don’t rush or beat yourself up if you find you start crying on the anniversary of your marriage or when you attend a family wedding. However, you may find it helpful to find a therapist to vent to who will strategize coping mechanisms. This will circumvent your crying on family members’ and friends’ shoulders, though your closest circle most likely will offer their support with open arms. You can always join a grief support group or one for divorcees to share with others the stages you’re likely to go through, including anger at why this happened to you. Some also find religion helpful or another form of spirituality to guide you. Meditation can also prove useful.
Familial. Every family is different, and some members may be far more sympathetic and empathetic than others. You most likely don’t want to burden your children or elderly parents with your woes, and they might be grieving too. So, test the waters and see their reaction. The same goes for friends. You may be surprised by who steps forward and who does not. Some can’t deal with others’ problems, especially death. Don’t be too harsh; it’s about them not you.
If you can, it’s important to surround yourself with support--those who make you feel good about yourself and are invested in trying to help you heal. Most of all, be patient with yourself and occasionally treat yourself to something you love—a new book, a nice bottle of wine, fresh flowers, and dinner out. Sitting at the counter or a bar of a restaurant can prove fun when you converse with those around you and a friendly bartender. Life is an adventure if you’re open to all it offers.