Losing a husband suddenly is very different from caring for a loved one through a long illness. While the grief and sorrow are the same, sometimes a sudden death leaves widows less prepared for the “work” they must do afterward. Often, there are no funeral and burial arrangements. They don’t know how to file death certificates, change names on charge and bank accounts, or contact their insurance agencies. Some of these “sudden widows” also don’t know about managing financial portfolios, writing checks, balancing checkbooks, or (don’t laugh) putting gas in the car, calling the plumber, changing lightbulbs and so much more.

(By the same token, men whose wives die unexpectedly may wonder how to turn on the washing machine, when to change sheets, and how to do anything in the kitchen beyond opening wine bottles.)

When they have “warning time,” many couples make preparatory plans and changes. I have one friend whose husband was a successful businessman until retirement. Later, he managed their financial portfolio and rental properties, played cards and attended men’s club meetings. But that wasn’t enough for his wife. She decided to prepare both of them for widowhood.

After learning to manage their home improvements and to understand their finances, she decided to teach her husband to survive without her.   “I take him into the kitchen every evening and make him help me prepare dinner,” she said. “He chops salad, broils meat, cooks vegetables. When we order in, he sets the table. He can feed himself. He also puts his own laundry into his own laundry bag and washes it himself every Sunday.”

I have two other friends, who, unfortunately, became widows suddenly and had made no preparations for that. Ten years ago, both moved to Florida, leaving family and friends in Illinois. After their spouses’ deaths, both stayed with their children, trying to make up their minds about their futures. No one ever taught them to make important decisions or to live alone.

As a result, they feel bereft and anxious to the point of panic. Neither one can decide if she should sell or rent her Florida condo and move back to the Midwest. On one hand, they would like their children to vacation in the condos. On the other hand, they could use the money now.

Their children, who are sensible and know their mothers’ financial situations, are able to offer good advice but they don’t want to interfere. They feel their mothers should decide by themselves. After the three of us lunched last week, and talked about their dilemas, we agreed they, and most “sudden widows,” should do a few things.

These include:

1. Go over all your finances with a knowledgeable, licensed accountant, attorney, 0r financial adviser–or all three. You can’t make appropriate decisions about where and how well you can live unless you know exactly how much money you have–and owe. Take a friend or relative you trust with you to make sure someone understands the details. You can’t decide how you will live until you understand what you can spend each month.

2. Talk with a trained therapist, counselor or clergyman to help you address your shock, fears and new decisions. This third person can help you consider choices with an objectivity few close friends and family members have. When the major decisions are made, return to the accountant and write a personal budget to follow in your new life.

3. Then give yourself permission to feel sad and cry sometimes–but remind yourself that life goes on and you’re going to go with it.

Sandra Pesmen is host of www.widowslist.com.

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Sandra Pesmen

Sandra Pesmen

Sandra Pesmen, host of www.widowslist.com, also writes the weekly DR.JOB column syndicated by Career News Service. A member of The Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame and The University of Illinois Media Alumni Hall of Fame, Ms. Pesmen is author of “DR. JOB’s Complete Career Guide,“ and “Writing for the Media: Public Relations and the Press.” A reporter, features writer and editor, this business journalist was features editor of Crain’s Chicago Business from its inception in 1978 to 1990, when she became corporate features editor for its parent, Crain Communications Inc. She also wrote the monthly Executive Woman column in North Shore magazine in suburban Chicago for many years. Previously, she was a reporter and features writer for the Chicago Daily News.

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