A Survival Guide for Widows

whiteorchidwidowMichelle Davison was making tea one afternoon when she noticed a police car in front of her house. An officer and two women, later identified as victim advocates, walked toward the front door. When she saw lines of sorrow in their faces, the instinctive question was about her children. “Are my kids alright?” she asked. “Yes, your kids are fine,” the officer replied. Then the words spilled out: “A private place to speak…high-speed car crash…husband was innocent.”

David had been killed on his way to the airport. He left a widow and four children. Michelle joined over half a million women in the United States that year widowed under the age of 45. In the case of sudden death, a woman is forced to make life-altering decisions in a short period of time.

Many women find themselves almost sleepwalking through the stages that follow—the funeral, digging out financial forms, filing for Social Security. If you know someone who has been widowed recently, experts in both financial and psychological professions say that friends can make a difference. Knowing how to help a newly widowed friend may bring more than solace. You may be able to head off hasty and disastrous financial decisions. And, you may be able to keep your friend in touch with a caring community.

Here’s a blueprint for both of you.


“You’re in a compromised mental state,” says Kim Mooney, Community Bereavement and Education Coordinator for Hospice of Colorado. “Don’t make decisions for a year. Move through a grief process. Recognize that there is a period of depressive grief. Medication may be helpful, but sometimes it’s inappropriate. Know that your life is going to change everyday. For individual counseling, find the right person, find a grief-educated professional.”

That’s because depressive grief is different from clinical depression. Counselors, groups of the newly widowed, hospice retreats–all are trained in acknowledging that grief doesn’t follow set stages. Each individual walks through those twilight moments of mourning differently. A grief-trained counselor will recognize your individuality.

You may attend programs held by Colorado Hospice whether or not your husband was involved with the organization before his death. And you need not attend right away—even a year later is not too late.


Confused thinking, aimlessness, appetite and sleep changes are signs of internalized grief. “Our bodies aren’t going to lie to us,” says family therapist David Dalke, who treats families suffering from traumatic loss. “I don’t know that we totally heal. I think that’s something that we plant on other people Sometimes the pain is so great, the loss is so devastating, we live with it and through it and it accompanies us,” he says.

While there’s no codified way to mourn, the bereaved know their footsteps feel heavier; dream and waking hours have fuzzy outlines; time appears out of kilter.

As a friend, counselor Patricia Kelly suggests, “Acknowledge that this person is in the midst of a trauma. At some point they’re going to feel the loss and be in a grief process. It will get more vivid for them although they’re on automatic pilot right now. Recognize that the pain may get worse, even a year down the road. There’s no time limit on this. Sometimes being there means just that. Tell them that you’re just going to sit in the living room and read your book, but you’re available.”

Throughout the first year, grief will be triggered by anniversaries: the first family holiday, a birthday, or a graduation. Mooney describes grief as delayed, sometimes deferred: “Grief often happens after shock, when you begin to feel safe. This I see often with teenagers. And women who were never married but partnered for 40 years experience disenfranchised grief.”

The mourning may spill out months later, much to the shock and disbelief of family and friends.

That’s why friends are afraid to bring up the death. They worry that it will trigger crying and then the wound will be opened. “Talking is always better than not talking about death,” Dalke says.

Those who have lost a husband long to share their memories. It’s a time not to move away from a bereaved friend, but to move closer. Listen to her. Keeping a grief-stricken friend in a community, whether it’s a shared religious faith, a group of friends, a street of neighbors, a collection of working colleagues, is important.


Sometimes children will defer their grief because they are trying to protect their mother and allow her to grieve. Children will wait until they feel safe to express anger and grief. They’ve been waiting for their mother to be strong enough to console them.

“Keep in mind that the children lose the parent who has died. They also lose a little of the parent who is still here because they’ve been taken away by the process,” Kelly says. “Often there’s anger at the mom or dad who died. Anger is a common way that kids express sadness. To adults that may seem bizarre.”

Friends can help by trying to normalize a situation: “I’ll pick up the kids from soccer this season.” Or, contribute to household chores: “I’ll bring over a Sunday dinner each week.” Include the kids by asking what they like to eat. Offer to mow the lawn, take the dog for a walk—anything that relieves everyday burdens and contributes to the rhythm of ordinary life.

Children and even teens may need their mom or adult friend to talk to the school principal or teachers. An adult friend can remain a connection with a community that continues a routine, but also indicates a caring response.

“The parent has to do their work to come back around and fully be there for their children. There are things that a parent cannot do with their children that they once did. As a friend, let them not feel guilty about that,” Kelly says.


Gather financial documents, beginning with the latest tax return. “That will tell you what investments you have, and all about Uncle Harry’s bonds,” says George Tamm, vice-president of investments at A.G. Edwards & Sons in Longmont. It will also give you information on any tax advisors your husband may have used. Ask your friend to make phone calls if it’s too difficult for you to set up appointments. When you meet with any advisor or a Social Security administrator, consider taking a trusted friend with you. If you forget details, your friend is likely to remember.

Then look at household expenses and get a ballpark figure of the income you will need. Experts suggest it will take about 80 percent of your former income to meet expenses.

“This an accounting activity, it’s not emotional,” Tamm says, “The difficult part is that this is taking place at an grief-stricken time. Often people try to help those in stress and want to fix things quickly. They’ll offer advice but most are misinformed, not professional, or not objective. It’s important not to jump at any schemes or big changes.”

Look for the will, bank accounts, mutual funds and brokerage accounts, a safe deposit box, titles to cars, your home mortgage, medical insurance papers (see our health insurance section next), life insurance, social security benefits, retirement or 401-K accounts, credit cards, unpaid salary, IRA accounts, workman’s compensation benefits, military discharge papers, employer’s benefit statements. You’ll need copies of your husband’s death certificate (usually obtained from the mortuary or county health department) to begin transferring accounts into your own name. You may need to update your will.

If you are faced with a life insurance settlement, it won’t be taxed. Look at high debt, Tamm suggests, like credit cards, and consider using insurance money to become more solvent. Life insurance is also appropriate to pay education bills for your children.

But if you receive your husband’s 401-K plan or Individual Retirement Account, realize that it will be taxed once you use it for income. This may be the right vehicle to roll over into your own IRA so that taxes will continue deferred. These are two big lump sums of money that widows often receive. Understanding the tax consequences before dipping into these funds is essential.

Financial advice, Tamm says, must be crafted on a customized basis. Every widow is different. Again, you don’t have to make decisions immediately. “Put the money in Treasury Bills or a money market fund,” he suggests: “You don’t have to invest right away. You can do that over time.”

Eventually you’ll have all the financial facts and will need to decide where you want to be in one year, five years or ten. If you need an advisor, find one who listens to you, pays attention and treats you like an individual. Even women who have spent little time with the family money can become excellent investors. “Women will listen, evaluate and understand the big picture,” Tamm says.


Health insurance becomes a major task when the entire family relied upon the father’s benefits. According to Susan Gambrill, special assistant to the Colorado Insurance Commissioner, laws that cover dependents fall into either state or federal jurisdiction.

Under federal law, dependents would be offered COBRA, (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act), which means that a widow and dependents would be eligible to continue their current coverage up to 36 months. They may be charged premiums of up to 102 percent of the employer’s cost. But COBRA applies only to companies that have 20 or more employees. For information go to: www.dol.gov/dol/topic/health-plans/cobra.htm

A similar benefit existing under Colorado law covers dependents of any company regardless of the number of employees, but only for 18 months. To find more information, go towww.dora.state.co.us/insurance/ and find the main menu.

Another federal law is Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act , or HIPPA. This law means that you can get access to health insurance if you’ve been denied insurance–providing you file within 62 days. “It provides access, but not necessarily affordable insurance,” Gambrill says.

In other cases, a widow must find her own health insurance. She might have the option to buy. But the price often escalates. There is a Cover Colorado plan that serves as a safety net for children whose family income is too high for Medicaid, but too low for private premium payments. It’s currently in a state of flux and bound to go through legislative changes. Again, check with the website listed above for the Colorado Insurance Commissioner’s office.

Medicaid provides some health care for the indigent. Their rules are complex. To see if you qualify, call the County Department of Social Services where you live for an appointment. Each county has its own department. The telephone number for Denver is 303-866-3513. Outside that metro area, dial 1-800-211-3943.


You may call the national telephone number of Social Security to set up a local appointment at the site nearest you. That number is 800-772-1213. To find the closest office, go to the websites3abaca.ssa.gov/pro/fol/fol-home.html.

There you’ll type in your zip code to pull up the nearest office. Collect your husband’s death certificate, both his and your social security number, marriage certificate, your children’s social security numbers, his recent tax return, also the name and address of your bank as well as your account number. This is so a check can be direct deposited. To find the “Survivor’s Benefits” booklet online, go to www.ssa.gov/pubs/10084.html. Unlike the health insurance maze that overwhelms widows and their children, Social Security has a decent record of support. Survivor’s benefits are tax-free and may amount to more than you realize.

If both you and your husband had been collecting Social Security benefits, you will receive the larger of the two.


Eventually widows rediscover that their world is rich and wonderful. New family rituals are created. “If Dad was here, what would he say?” becomes a memory incorporated into anniversaries. It may take two or three years, but widows move beyond coping.

“It’s important that we not become professional at coping. ‘I’m coping,’ after a year means they’re not getting very far. There comes a time, each in our own way when we have to grow,” Dalke says.

Widows instinctively recognize that time. “We’re a new family now,” Michelle says, several years after the death of David. Given time and support, resilience and strength take over. Let your friend know she will move forward with the things that bring her joy; she and her children have a future.

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