Happy Sunday, widowed peeps, and other peeps who support and follow this blog. (Thank you!)
So today, in one of the Facebook widowed groups, the topic of finances came up in a post. A member of the widow community posted because she will be giving a presentation at Camp Widow Tampa about tips on what to do/how to handle your finances after the death of your spouse or partner. She posted asking us what kinds of things we wish we knew or questions we wanted addressed about finances after the loss. It was a great question, a great topic, and a great idea for a workshop at camp. Im very happy she will be doing it. The problem is, for me and a lot of other widowed people, there were no financial decisions to be made, because there were NO finances. None. So everyone was commenting about life insurance decisions, health insurance, how and where to spend monies, dividing up assets, estate issues, retirement funds, and so many other things that just made me laugh out loud because I could not relate to any of it on any level.
Life insurance? He was 46, I was 39, and we had just married 4 years earlier. As far as I knew, we were both very healthy, and had plenty of time to get life insurance. With no kids yet and no home (we rented a small apartment in New Jersey and home ownership was only in conversation mode for the future), it just wasnt something we had talked about yet. So there was no life insurance. Health insurance? Yeah. They took mine away within days of his sudden death, because I was on his and they would no longer cover it. Assets? Nope. Just a pile of his “stuff” that felt like suffocation, and an old crappy car that I had to sell in order to help me survive. I had bills that I needed to figure out how to deal with, and that I spent the first two years trying to convince his creditors (credit cards, dental bills, student loans, and the hospital bill for $26K for the hour or so he was in the ER and they did NOT save his life,) that I was not responsible for paying them.
The first time I really burst into tears after he died suddenly, had nothing to do with grief. It was about an hour or so after I found out he died, and his EMS supervisors showed up at the hospital where he was rushed by ambulance and pronounced dead, and announced to me that they would be “taking care of” all the expenses for the funeral and arrangements. Before they said that, I literally had zero clue what I was going to do, and I knew I could never afford to do much of anything, never mind the beautiful services and reception they walked us through and helped us plan, and paid for. Without their help, I honestly dont know what I would have done. In the months and years that followed, I moved out of our apartment due to no longer being to afford rent alone, and moved into a new place with a roommate I found online. After being kicked out of that situation, I had to find a second living situation, each time finding someone who would not only take me in, but also my 2 cats, who meant everything to me. I held down 3, often times, 4 jobs at once; teaching college courses, directing theatre shows, doing food demos for local grocery stores, so many things. And I still struggled to get by, to make ends meet. I had to use credit cards to pay things like groceries, basic needs, and sometimes other bills such as electricity or car and parking garage fees. I fell into serious credit card debt over the next few years, and I;m just now, almost 12 years later, just beginning to come out of it. My family and friends helped as much as they could, and so many people were so generous and so amazing, but eventually, the best way for my parents to really help was to offer me a place to stay in their home back in Massachusetts. A place to take a breather, finish writing my book, and not have to pay rent for awhile so I could figure out what the hell to DO with the rest of my life.
So, 5 years after my husband’s heart stopped, I made the heart-wrenching but necessary decision to leave my life in NYC and move in with my parents. It was supposed to be for a few months. It ended up being for 3 years. Being in your mid-forties and living in mom and dad’s basement sure does make a person feel like a loser. I know they didnt think I was a loser, but I felt like one. And the truth is, it just shouldnt be THAT hard to put your life back together again after the loss of a spouse or partner. Im not talking about the grief and the loss itself – that takes as long as it takes and there are days it feels impossible. Im talking about finances. Basic living. Surviving. People who are living with the death of their life partner should NOT have to decide between buying food for themselves or food for their cats. They should NOT have to ignore serious health issues for years, like I did, because they cant afford to go to the doctor, and they dont even HAVE a doctor because they have no insurance, and there is no insurance that exists that they can afford. They should not have to go into credit card debt that takes a lifetime to get out of, because credit cards are the only way they can pay their current and overwhelming bills. So many nights I sat crying in my apartment, or in a different apartment with a roommate I didnt like at all and who didnt really like me – wondering what the hell am I going to do. How am I going to do this? It was hell on earth, and even now, when I think about it, it makes me SO angry. Don would be SO ANGRY that society or the government or our system didnt take care of me and make sure I was okay. All that mattered to him was taking care of me, making sure I was okay. He would more pissed off than anyone that all I got from his death to get by was a one-time check from social security for $250. Is that a joke? Because it sure felt like one at the time.
It’s really screwed up, the lack of financial support that is offered or available when you lose a partner to death. It should be criminal, quite frankly. This time around, in my marriage, we do have life insurance on/for each other. It’s certainly not for an amount where I’d be “all set” by any means – but more of a “time to breathe” type of amount. I also no longer live in NYC, where the basic cost of living is completely insane and largely un-doable for most people. But aside from those two things, I still feel like if I were to become widowed again (I hate even typing that, it makes me shake with horror), not much would be different. I’d still be struggling big time. I’d still need to figure out what Im going to do, where Im going to live, and how can I sustain this life by myself? The past few years, I have attempted many “responsible” ways to make a living. I went into real estate. (Enter a pandemic and the weirdest market ever, and my career didnt go so well.) I now drive kids to school in a student van. Im currently enrolled in courses to become a certified grief-counselor, which Im hopeful but very cautious that I will finally be able to make some semblance of a living doing something Im passionate about.
Over a decade later, and Im still cleaning up the financial rubble left behind from a world that doesnt much care about people who become widowed and left alone, just as they are starting their lives with someone.
I dont know what can or should be done about this. I know that something should be done. Someone should speak up for the widowed people who find themselves in positions of financial ruin after their partner’s death. I know that speaking about it often doesn’t happen, because it feels shameful and embarrassing to admit you don’t have enough money to live or have basic things. I know that people like me feel terrible about being in this position, and that we wish like hell that we weren’t. I know that there is no feeling more empty or hollow than losing the life you had, and then realizing that you also will not be able to have enough funds to be able to sustain any sort of life you wish to re-build or create. Widowhood already makes you feel forgotten and isolated and lonely as all hell. Looking at your bank account and seeing that it’s in the negative more times than not, goes a long way in making a person feel worthless.
I don’t know how to fix this, but I wish like hell that NOBODY would have to deal with it, ever, and beginning to talk about it more openly and with less shame feels like a really good place to start.