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Widowhood: What to Do Both Before and After

A friend of mine became a widow last night. It was a peaceful end to a long and difficult journey. Cindy’s husband was diagnosed with a rare Parkinson’s-like disease in his early 50s, and the couple lived through more than a decade of his slow debilitation. Yet even with the sure knowledge of his prognosis, his death brings a mountain of tasks.

When I returned home from delivering hugs, tears and a meal, I sent my friend a couple of checklists I’ve compiled to ease the way for survivors to manage the difficult first months after a partner’s death. The first checklist summarizes actions to be done before death. The other checklist is for the newly widowed. Working through these now will help smooth the way when the inevitable happens.

Call in Friends and Family

The single most important lifesaver is calling upon close friends and family for help. Relatives and friends can assist with many of these listed tasks. They can also provide or arrange for meals, babysitting, pet-sitting, errands, and help with funeral details.

When you bring together key family members early-on, you have the opportunity not only for comfort but to share information about important decisions that must be made, including funeral arrangements, religious considerations and what is realistic. You may also want to consider what will help each of you heal. This is a good time to discuss whether you need assistance with funeral costs. If so, consider contacting your church, union or an organization dear to your loved one. These organizations also may be able to assist with a post-funeral gathering.

After the funeral, give yourself a little space before tackling the second tier of tasks.

These will tail off eventually, but they will wrap up sooner if you are proactive. Incoming mail and email are clues to seeking out necessary organizations to contact, such as medical providers, credit card companies, utility providers, instead of waiting for things to go awry.

Gather Important Records

Go through files, mail and papers to gather in any available information regarding life insurance, investments, and retirement accounts. Close credit card or other accounts that you will not need. Your attorney, financial advisor, and accountant can help you with advice and administrative tasks such as changing titles on accounts and vehicles. List important bills and debts and share this list with the estate’s executor, if that is not you. This will help to settle the estate in the least amount of time.

During her husband’s final illness, Cindy gathered six of her close friends, asking us for counsel on a variety of issues from self-care to financials. We were proud of her for coming forward and sharing the troubles that were overwhelming her. A couple of days later, Cindy summoned her daughters. Each daughter held one of their father’s hands, as my friend caught some respite outside the hospital room. Peace and patience warmed the room and time stood still for a few moments.

Now that her husband has died, there is barely time yet to grieve. Cindy doesn’t yet feel the relief that comes from no longer being the constant caregiver during her husband’s long illness. That will come, with time and more patience.

Top 10 Tasks While Your Spouse Is Alive

1. Compile a short list of close friends and family.
2. Locate and familiarize yourselves with these documents: Social Security cards; birth, marriage, and children’s birth certificates, insurance policies, property title; automobile title and registrations; investment and bank accounts; military documents; income tax and W-2 forms; and debt details.
3. Share each other’s user names and passwords so email and other accounts can be easily accessed.
4. Discuss organ donation.
5. Discuss funeral wishes.
6. Draft your obituary.
7. Research options regarding funeral homes.
8. Update your will and estate plan.
9. Fill out an Advanced Directive/ Power of Attorney for Health Care / Living Will , stating your last wishes for medical and emotional care.
10. If you have an ex-spouse, review details of your Divorce Decree. If the marriage lasted 10 years, ex-spouses may be eligible for Social Security survivor benefits.

Top 10 Tasks When You Are Widowed

1. Meet with organ procurement organizations for your area (ask the hospital).
2. Check the “before” list.
3. Deploy close friends-and-family list (6-12 people) for help, including finalizing the obituary, organizing a post-funeral gathering, publicizing the service, keeping a journal of well-wishers (gifts, cards, and donations).
4. Contact funeral home; begin preparations.
5. Secure your property so thieves will not be tempted to rob your home. Lock all doors and windows, turn on your alarm, have neighbors collect your mail and newspapers when you are away.
6. Contact family attorney and executor (if that is not you), accountant and financial advisor.
7. Notify broad friends-and-family group including your attorney, accountant, and financial advisors.
8. Other important items in the first days and weeks: fill out a “mail forwarding” at the post office and obtain a dozen death certificates (Some will need to be notarized.)
9. Other important items in the coming weeks and months: write thank you notes for contributions, cards and donations, contact Social Security, Medicare, insurance policies (medical, life, etc), employment benefits, election board, and IRS.
10. If at all possible, DON’T make any big decisions in the first year. You may feel differently about things, and make different decisions when you have settled into your new life.

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