On Becoming a Widow (or Widower)…Some Lessons Learned

by Nicole Santo


At the age of 62 I suddenly became a widow. I was completely blindsided by the untimely death of my husband (also 62), as he was so healthy, strong and vibrant before his sudden illness.

It’s been 2-1/2 years since his death.  At this point in my “new normal,” I have learned a great deal…but am sure I’ll be learning even more in years to come. Let me share with you some of the things I have learned along the way in the hopes that you’ll be able to avoid some of the potholes that could be on your road of grief, if not prepared. All of these ideas can be used no matter who you are.

Prepare for the Unthinkable

Lists, lists, lists…

For some reason, a few years before my husband passed away, I realized there were things he took care of around the house that I had no idea he did, or how he did it. And vice versa. So, we both sat down and wrote a lengthy list of those things we took on as ‘our responsibility’ and explained how we did it and where to find information. For example, my husband took care of all of our investments and life insurances. He wrote a list of the investments we had and where to find the information on those investments. Likewise, he made a list of all the life insurance we had — he included the name of the policy, the insurance company, the policy number, amount of the policy, and where to find the policy.

In turn, I did the same thing for him. Just one example was with our bills — listing how we receive each bill (via email or snail mail), how I pay the bill (whether it’s ‘auto pay,’ I pay with a credit card, or pay with a check), and the user name and password to get into the account. I also explained where I kept all the files.

Truthfully, it was a pain to have to sit down and write all of that out. But I can’t tell you how invaluable my husband’s list became to me after his death. My life was already a blur, and having to try to figure out how to do some of the seemingly mundane things my husband took care of, would have added to my already overwhelmed feelings.

Keep Your Head Out of the Sand

It’s amazing the number of women I’ve come in contact with who have no idea how to pay bills. And guys, this holds true for you too! Don’t bury you head in the sand, at least completely.  You don’t have to be the one in charge of paying the bills, but you should have a working knowledge should it become necessary.

And that holds true not only for death. If your spouse is the bill payer and becomes incapacitated for some time, you will need to take over. You will already be stressed out due to taking care of your spouse – no need to add to your worries. It’s always good to have a working knowledge of your finances.

Sentimental Items

Over the years, we all collect special items that may not have real cash value, but the sentimental value is priceless. A few years before my husband’s death, I took pictures of his small gun collection and then had him tell me about them — who gave them to him & why, what special sentimental value did they have to him, etc. I am so glad I did that. After his passing, when it was time for me to pass his guns on to our children, I was able to tell them what special meaning they held for their father. My belief is that if an item has a story to it, that story should be passed along with the item. There’s no better way to truly appreciate the ‘value’ of that item!

After his passing, when I realized how grateful I was to have had the insight to ‘pick my husband’s brain’ for details of his guns, I decided to go around the house and take pictures of anything that held a special value. I then printed out the pictures (four per page) and numbered them and attached a Word document listing each picture by number with details of why that item held special meaning to us, who gave it to us, for what occasion, and if there was a story behind it. I have that information filed away with my Will. When I die, as my children are sorting through all of our belongings, they will know the true value of each special item and hopefully, appreciate the item as much as we did. (And if they decide to donate something to Goodwill, at least they’re been able to make an educated decision!)

As a side note: Even though I think I’ve included everything, I occasionally come across something that I forgot to take a picture of (and explain). No problem, I have an addendum!

Professional Help

If you can afford it, I highly suggest you find a financial advisor you completely trust. Although my husband was the most intelligent person I’ve ever met, he knew that ‘investing’ was not his strong point. In looking to the future and preparing for his retirement, he realized we needed some professional help. After interviewing several financial advisors, we chose the one that both of us had a warm, cozy feeling about. The three of us just clicked.

In the years before my husband’s death, our financial advisor got to know us pretty well…learning how conservative or aggressive we were willing to be with our investments, and what we wanted to have at retirement age. He helped direct us toward our goals. However, it was after my husband’s death that I realized the depth of our advisor’s knowledge and compassion. He directed me every step of the way financially, which was most helpful considering I was in a fog for several weeks. Two and one-half years later, he’s still directing me and advising me on many things…including helping me navigate the Medicare nightmare of a vast amount of confusing information.

My belief — the money I pay my financial advisor is money very well spent.

Living Directives and Last Will & Testaments

It goes without saying, be sure to have a Living Directive (Living Will) and a Last Will and Testament. Make sure they are updated as necessary…and know where they are! You may think you’re too young to have to worry about that, but death doesn’t happen only to the elderly. This is simply a part of being a responsible adult.

Enjoy Life

It’s not only important to plan for your future, but you also need to enjoy the present. There is a saying by Bil Keane: “Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” That kind of says it all, doesn’t it?!!!

Yes, please plan sensibly for your future, but don’t let it overpower the present. Enjoy life the best way you can. Make a budget and stick to it. Always put a certain percentage aside for your future, but if your finances allow, put ‘fun’ money into your budget also. And use that ‘fun’ money for fun! Whether it’s in taking a trip, buying a new ‘toy’ for yourself, or using it for a new experience — it really doesn’t matter. As long as you have a goal and have waited until you saved up enough, then enjoy! Surely you’ve heard: Work hard, play hard! There is nothing wrong with enjoying the fruits of your labor, as long as you’ve budgeted responsibly. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

I am incredibly grateful for the trips my husband and I were able to take. My husband may have been ‘taken away from me,’ but I’ll always have those special memories.

After the Death

Banking Accounts

After my husband passed away, I removed my his name from my checking account and added one of my children. That way, should I ever become incapacitated, my daughter can use my checking account for my care — no questions asked. One word of caution as passed on to me by my banker: Be sure you totally trust the person you add to your account. As long as their name is on the account, they do have access to your account even before you become disabled. It’s a double-edged sword…you may not need the other person’s name on your account at the moment, but you never know what can happen that can suddenly make it essential they have access.

For my savings account, after removing my husband’s name, I added a POD (Payable On Death). In doing this, I made my children owners of my account which is POD — meaning upon my death, my children can go to the bank and take out that money immediately to use as is necessary. No need to wait for a will to be probated.

A special note here: No two people have the very same set of circumstances. It is advisable to check with your financial advisor (if you have one) or your bank to see if these options are best for you personally.


It is a well-known fact that no two people grieve in the same way. But I can tell you from personal experience that attending a grief support group was one of the most beneficial things I could do for myself. In these groups, you may meet others who have had similar experiences — it’s always nice to be able to talk to someone you can actually relate to.  And there’s no limit to the number of groups you can attend – I attended four groups. I found that each group had a different format, which offered a different perspective. My suggestion is to attend a grief support group and if you don’t feel comfortable, find another one and another one until you do find the best fit. Most support groups are a wealth of information, understanding, and compassion…all of which you will probably need desperately. Whatever you do, don’t give up.

Please keep in mind that grief support groups are not just for widows…widowers need information, understanding, and compassion as well. It is sad to think that some men don’t attend these groups because they think it is less than macho.  I think it takes a real man to admit he needs help.

A word of caution: While there is no limit to the number of support groups you can attend, there is such as thing as too many and for too long. Be careful not to get yourself lost in grief; if you do, it’s awfully hard to find your way out.

A List of ‘Firsts’

The weeks following my husband’s death left me in a state of total loss. I suddenly felt helpless and powerless without him.  There were so many ‘little’ things he always took care of (that I never noticed) and now I either had to do them myself or find someone who could do them for me. Talk about overwhelming! That’s when I decided to start making a list of all the things I had to take care of for the first time…no matter how minute they seemed. Each time I added something to my ‘List of Firsts,’ I found myself feeling more and more empowered. I started to regain some of my confidence. In ‘black and white’ I was proving to myself that I could do it — I’d survive. And it quickly became a game to me to see how many new things I could add to my list. (My list now spans five full pages, and I continue to add to it.)

A Final Word to the Wise

Show Love and Be Grateful

This last piece of advice should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway — so many of us need to be reminded (me included). Always, always, be sure those people whom you love know that you cherish them. Tell them every day. If you skip a day, you may not get a second chance. And be grateful for and enjoy each and every day as if it’s your last, or theirs — you never know!







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One thought on “On Becoming a Widow (or Widower)…Some Lessons Learned

  • November 30, 2016 at 9:19 am

    Oh wow. I am sorry for your loss Nicole. My mother became a widow 4 years ago. Luckily my father, she and I had prepared in advance well for her, but it is still so very hard. Hugs and thanks for sharing your story and advice. There is so much wisdom in what you shared.


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