Whether or not you consider yourself prepared – mentally, financially, and legally – the reality is that the loss of a spouse is a devastating event no matter how much advanced planning you have done.
In addition to the sorrow itself, the passing of your life partner can create a whirlwind of uncertainty that leaves you trying to figure out how to get through the first few days and weeks, then the first year, and ultimately, the path you want to take in the next chapter of your life.
Along the way, there will be some things that need to be addressed quickly and others that can be taken on more deliberately.
Legal and Financial Responsibilities
During the first year, after the passing of a spouse, there will be administrative (legal and financial) matters that need to be handled. These include:
1. Notifying people of your spouse’s death. Informing family members, friends, loved ones, employers, and family advisors about a spouse’s passing will be one of the first things to do. It is recommended to delegate this responsibility to a trusted friend or family member to have one central point of contact for communications and logistics.
2. Reaching out to a funeral director. Along with assisting with burial and funeral or memorial plans, a funeral director can help with getting copies of the death certificate – something you likely will need multiple copies of for various financial institutions.
3. Finding key documents and organizing them. Important paperwork that should be located and organized include estate planning documents such as the Will, a trust, advanced health care directives, and beneficiary information that can help outline the final wishes of your spouse.
- tax returns (several years)
- bank and credit card statements
- retirement account statements like IRAs or 401(K)s
- investment accounts
- real estate deeds
- Social Security information
- life insurance policies
- mortgage statements
- annuity contracts
It’s helpful to make yourself a checklist, arranged chronologically by accounts and institutions, to ensure you have everything covered. And, since many of these documents may be paperless, also check your late spouse’s email accounts to print out any statements and to check if any notices have been emailed.
4. Consulting with professionals. Once you have all your documents lined up, it is best to reach out to trusted and experienced legal and financial professionals. A qualified Connecticut estate planning attorney can guide you through the probate process, estate taxes, and administering your loved one’s estate, as well as confirming that your own estate plan is updated and reflective of your wishes. Similarly, a financial planner can help you navigate your finances and prepare for your future financial objectives. It is important to note that you can take some time to vet and choose the qualified professionals that are best suited for your situation.
The First Year: Healing
In the scramble of handling all the “must-dos” after a spouse dies, sometimes recognizing and dealing with the emotional trauma can get a bit lost. But it is imperative that you take the time and space to process your loss and to handle it in your own way and on your own timetable.
1. Allow yourself to grieve. Mourning and grieving are an essential part of expressing our emotions and a part of the healing process. Each person may grieve differently and at their own pace – and that is ok. Grief is emotional and well as a physical. Try to be kind to yourself and respect what you are feeling and what your body is telling you. Your grief is your own and should not be compared with that of others.
2. Brain fog or forgetfulness can happen. Known as “widow brain”, a widow or widower may experience bouts of forgetfulness, lose focus, have trouble concentrating on tasks they have always done, or more easily lose their train of thought. Although the duration of “widow brain” can vary from person to person, it usually resolves in 12-18 months. Generally, it is helpful during this period to keep the brain active and engaged and write things down.
3. Don’t act on impulse. When possible, try not to make any major decisions in that first year. Think through your choices and decisions, seek advisement if needed, and then take what actions you believe to be best for your future. Moreover, don’t make yourself do anything until you are ready (for example, giving away your spouse’s clothing to charity or cleaning out possessions, etc.); also, understand that you shouldn’t feel pressured into letting others make decisions for you.
4. Seek out and accept support. Try to surround yourself with positive people and productive things to do. Supportive people can range from family and friends, to getting together with other widows, to a support group that can be with you through your time of mourning. The key is not to get locked into loneliness.
Use your support network when you need to talk about your feelings, share your frustrations, or simply, just need a friend by your side. Seek out others to accompany you to places, social gatherings, or events that you enjoy. And, when those difficult milestones or first holidays come around, it is helpful to have those who care about you around to remember, reflect, and celebrate cherished memories of your late spouse.
Likewise, it can be beneficial to find ways for you to “pay it forward.” For example, volunteering or being a part of someone (such as a recent widow) else’s support system where you can offer comfort and the wisdom of experience. You may be surprised by how helping others can improve your mood and your mindset.
The first year after the death of spouse will be a unique, bittersweet process of dealing with your loss while trying to heal and resume your (new) life. And while the passage of time does have a way of making memories a little easier to handle, there is obviously no magic switch that shuts off the grieving process one year later.
Take the care you need to process your loss, seek out those who can be of comfort and support, and as best you can, try to embrace this next stage of your life by moving forward while remembering and celebrating the past. Remember, it takes time, and the journey’s pace will be unique to you.