Losing a loved one means you’ll have both big and small decisions to make. Trust your inner voice.
I called a company to order something for my wife. The lady who answered the phone was super nice, and she took down all the information. I told her that the order was for my wife’s birthday. She said, “That is so sweet. You sound a lot like my late husband, he passed away last year.” I immediately expressed my sympathy for her loss. She told me about her husband and what a great a guy he was. I felt compelled to tell her my story of being a widower about four years ago. I wrote about my experience here on The Good Men Project in an article last year.
We both kind of bonded over having that shared experience of losing a loved one. She then said “You know Shawn, I think grief is like grass—when someone dies, it dies, but when you wait, in the spring it comes back up again, and it is green again. Grief is kind of like that I think.” I told her that was a great analogy and told her about the book I wrote about grief called The Sun Still Rises.
She said one of the biggest challenges she faced was having so many decisions to make without her husband around. This reminded of what I wrote about that very topic—here is an excerpt:
There will be many major and minor decisions to make as a result of your loss. In the early days you’ll have to make decisions about funerals, memorial services, burial, cremation, and other logistics relating to funeral services and memorials and headstones. You may have to make these decisions alone or you may be making these decisions with other family members and close friends; the choice is up to you. The hard part about the entire process is that once the funeral is over, you haven’t finished—you have just begun. You will have many tough decisions to make over the next few years. Some of those decisions you will have to make because you will be forced to, some of those decisions will be optional. It’s not going to be easy—but you can get through it—I promise and I know. I lived them.
There are actually several areas of your life and your family’s life you may need to make decisions about:
- Personal items
- Finances/Bill paying
- Real estate
- Family and children
- Household management/maintenance
- Timing of decisions
- Work life/career
- Legal matters/wills
The Stuff They Left Behind
One of the most challenging aspects of grieving a loss, particularly when we are talking about adults, is all of the stuff that they leave behind. Their loved ones have to handle, sort, organize, and make decisions about this stuff. What to do with it all? It also can be extremely painful emotionally because the items that they leave behind are very achingly personal. I will never forget the experience of going through my wife’s walk-in closet and handling all of her clothes. As I removed clothes from the closet each outfit often brought up a special memory of a specific time and place when she wore that particular outfit, and the calendar of my life with her was flipped back to another page.
So my friend, one of the biggest questions that you’ll have is- what to do with all of “the stuff” (a technical term). From a practical viewpoint, a lot of the items that my wife left behind were things that I had no use for, such as women’s clothing and women’s perfumes, lotions, makeup, and jewelry. The best advice that I can give you is the technique of “divide and conquer.”
I also recommend that you ask for help if you feel that you need it. My wife, for example, was a huge fan of what I lovingly call “lotions and potions.” Her bathroom was stocked with a huge inventory of lotions, perfumes, and other ladies cosmetics (OK, maybe too many—but I am glad they made her happy). I asked my daughter if she would come over and help me sort through them and determine first which ones she wanted, which ones might be given to other friends and family members, and which ones we could donate to a good cause. Her assistance in sorting through all of the items in the bathroom was invaluable to me at that time. Besides, as a man what do I know about ladies cosmetics? But I think her assistance was more than just the expertise about women’s cosmetics. She and her husband came over and spent an entire day working with me sorting through all of those items. It was hard for them too, but the moral support I got was extremely helpful that day and made me able to get through a very difficult act that I had to do (one of many on my long road).
So when thinking about stuff that your loved one left behind, I think you can break it into different categories and decide which you’re going to do in what order. For example, after my wife passed away, there were several categories of items that were left behind that needed to be sorted through. They were as follows:
- Computers and technology
- A truck (as second vehicle—I already had a car)
- An art studio
The one thing I want you to think about as you go through this painful and difficult process is that you will have to decide what you are going to do with everything that you sort through. Will you give these items to family members? Will you give them to friends? Donate them to charity? Sell them? Will you throw them in the trash? Keep in mind there are no right or wrong answers—all of those decisions are up to you, or up to you and family members that you designate and trust.
It has been 22 months and I have taken care of most of the items on the list. I’m still working through some of the items such as the collectibles and the art studio. Here are some of the questions that I ask myself which seem helpful in deciding how to sort through things.
- Does this item have sentimental value to me or someone else in the family?
- Is this an item that I want to keep for myself?
- Is this an item I want to give away?
- If I give this item away who do I want to give it to?
- Is it an item I could sell?
- If I donated it who would it be donated to?
- Is it OK to throw this item away?
Let me also address a fairly obvious issue. I am sure there will be some people reading this book who are offended when I talk about throwing things away. I’m not talking about throwing away family heirlooms or things that have tremendous sentimental value. I found for me there was an overwhelming amount of items to go through. I determined the items that could be given to other people—friends and family. If an item had no other value and could not be donated to charity then I threw it away. My thinking was that there’s only so much time in a day and being incredibly busy (doing all of the things that two people used to do) I had to get practical and realize that there were some things that just belonged in the trash. That was not meant as an act of disrespect towards my late wife, it’s just things that I did not need, no one else wanted, or could not be donated.
The reason I bring this up is even though you are grieving it still is a good idea to be practical. After all, how much can you reasonably expect to keep? To me the key rule in sorting through things is to not be impractical, while at the same time making sure that you make decisions that you’re comfortable with. I got rid of my wife’s clothes about four months after she died. Some people would say that’s too soon, some people would say that’s not soon enough. The reality is it doesn’t matter what people say, what matters is what is right for you. Please don’t feel rushed or pressured to do it sooner or to do it later. Do what feels right for you. I will say this: when you clean up, reorganize, and get rid of things, it can make you feel like you are moving forward in a positive way. I think it is good for your healing.
It’s a harsh, cold reality of life that not long after your loss you will be forced to take a look at all things financial, otherwise you are going to have more issues. It is the worst time to have to do these tasks because you are emotionally distraught, and it’s very hard to think clearly. I can tell you truthfully I found it agonizing. However, if you do not take a look at the financial picture, it will cause you even more suffering. If you are in a relationship and you were the one who handled the finances, it will not be as difficult. In our marriage my wife was the bill payer and she handled all of those responsibilities. My challenge was to immediately take over the bill pay function because bills had to be paid. I mean—I do have a mortgage payment and I kind of like my house. An additional challenge was that I was not allowed access to our bank’s online bill payment, so I had to dig through piles of mail to determine who we paid bills to and when each of them were due. I also had to research all of the account numbers and information. This took a great deal of time.
My only warning is to look at this sooner rather than later because even with the loss, companies are not empathetic and most will not allow you to miss a payment. This could affect your credit negatively in the future. In addition to paying bills there will be several other areas that you will need to address. I know that I didn’t want to address any of this—and I know you probably do not want to either, but painful as it may be, life must go on, and particularly your financial life carries on every month. Some of the questions you may ask yourself about finances are:
- How many bank accounts are there and how much money is in each one?
- Do you have the passwords and access information to look at each of them online or in person?
- Is there a safety deposit box with valuables and do you have the key?
- Are there any active life insurance policies in place that require action for payout?
- Can you still afford to live in your house or apartment now that the loved one’s income has gone away?
- Do you have outstanding loans or mortgage payments that will be difficult to pay on just your income?
- Do you have a household financial budget for the month? Does it need to be reworked due to the changes that have happened?
- How many vehicles do you want to keep and are they paid off?
So those are just a few questions you might want to think through regarding money and finances.
When my wife passed away I lived in a 2800 square foot Cape Cod house on 1.7 acres. Four months after my wife passed away I was asked “what are you going to do with the house?” My answer was always the same “I don’t know.” It was too big of a house for one man and four cats—and it was very lonely and empty. I made up my mind that I was not going to make any major decisions on the house until I was ready; I was very fortunate that I wasn’t going to be forced financially to make a decision. I was OK there.
So my point is you do need to take a look at your housing situation and look at it from a financial and emotional perspective. So financially, can you make your house payment on one income (if your loss eliminated an income producer)? If not what can you do? Can you get a roommate? If you live in an apartment the same questions apply.
Next—what about the emotional component of where you live? The house I live in is also the house where my wife passed away. There are some people would not be able to live in a house where their wife died. Perhaps I’m too practical, but I don’t blame the house and it doesn’t bother me that she passed away here. It was her home, our home for sixteen years. It feels like home to me. However you may have certain emotional feelings about your house or your apartment that are too hard for you to overcome. My only advice would be not to make decisions immediately because after all your feelings may change long-term, and I don’t want you to make a financial mistake by selling too quickly and by making rash decisions that are not financially sound. In the long run, it is really, totally your decision as to whether you want to stay in the home you’re living in or if you want to live somewhere different. The choice is yours.
Family and Children
I was very fortunate to have grown children and no young children when my wife passed away. I have one daughter who at the time of the writing of this book is 28 years old. She is married and has a happy life with her husband. I do know that when people have a loss of a husband or a wife that there is a great deal of complexity that is added when they have young children as well. First, the husband or wife is experiencing the loss of their spouse and then they are also suffering through the pain that their children are feeling because they lost their mother or father. This is compounded when the children are a young age and don’t really understand the concept of death and can’t figure out where mommy or daddy went. There is no doubt that when someone suffers a loss that the dynamics of the family are affected in every way you can imagine.
So you will be facing a whole range of issues relating to family and children as result of your loss. There will be all sorts of complicated issues that will come up and you will need to be strong and thoughtful in handling each and every situation in the family that will develop. People will be looking to you for the answers.
I remember going to my Mom and Dad’s house for Christmas about seven months after my wife passed away. I felt entirely at ease and comfortable, but I think there were people in the family who worried that I would not feel comfortable on Christmas Day or that I would be feeling melancholy because I was celebrating Christmas without my wife. I was actually OK. So the dynamic for me changed, but I didn’t realize that the dynamic for everyone else changed around me as well. That is the overwhelming effect of grief. It is like a ripple in a pond—we drop the stone of death in the middle and grief creates ripples which go outward and affect everybody in the water. I think you can ask yourself some primary questions which you will find helpful when making decisions about family and children:
- What is the best solution for me at this time being a person in grief?
- What is the best solution for the children at this time- being that they are children in grief?
- What are the best solutions for other family members at this time relating to family and children?
There is a rank order to these questions and that is very deliberate. Some would say that I should be asking the question about what’s best for the children first—I passionately disagree. I think you have to ask what is best for you first because you are the one that will be raising or dealing with the children from this point forward. You are the primary care giver—you must take care of yourself first, and the children second. If you don’t take care of yourself you will not be able to help your children. I also would highly recommend, if needed, to consult with a mental health professional to get their advice on what would be best for both you and the children.
I think Shel Silverstein said it best about making decisions:
There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What’s right for you—just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.”
Photo: Getty Images