No One Taught Us How to Cope With the Business of Death

©Erin Wilburn All Rights Reserved

“I am a woman, phenomenally.  Phenomenal woman, that’s me.”  Maya Angelou

Heather W, Mara, Melissa, Barb, Alison, Jennifer, Heather J, Mary, Jenny, Carrie. These are 10 women I’ve crossed paths with over the last 22 months who lost their husbands at a very young age, mostly unexpected. Some of these women were newlyweds, some had children. Whether now or in the past, they have all shared the unfortunate title of “Widow,” at one point. I’ve kept in touch with many of these young women through my own journey and have shared experiences and advice. These women have helped me in many ways as I’ve watched and listened to their journey.

I think we can all agree that no one gave us a manual on how to handle the death of our young spouses when this became our reality. To be honest, I think we all may tell you that those grief books in the self-help section are just ridiculous. I’d even go as far as saying, they’re bullshit. I don’t need someone to tell me about the “stages of grief” I’ll have to walk through and then where I currently am in those stages.  Thank you Captain Obvious.

I’ve spoken with a few of these women over the last 22 months about the things no one told us. The things that became crucial and non-negotiable that no one told us. I think it is important to share. No one told me about the business side of death. Many of these things I had to figure out along the way which was terrifying. No one really told me about the personal choices either. I am so grateful for these other women who validated so many things when I felt a bit crazy. I think it’s important to write about these experiences. My hope is that by sharing what no one told me, this can help others in the future.

The Business Choices

Going through these for me felt impersonal and strange. When your spouse dies, you essentially have to erase their name from everything. My biggest advice here for anyone would be, don’t put this off. You will only dig yourself into a bigger hole. The tough reality is, you and only you can truly take care of these tasks, no one can do it for you.  I have always been a manager at work which seemed to help me in this situation. I took care of a lot of this pretty quickly after John died with the help of my sister helping make multiple phone calls so I didn’t have to explain the situation over and over again. At the time, the thought of these financial decisions lingering stressed me out. I think I was still so shocked by what had happened, it was almost easier to deal with these things at the beginning. When the reality of the situation hits you later, and it will, it’s nice to have these things done. So here it is, the impersonal business tasks any widow or widower has to go through. Uncle Sam still gets paid, so unfortunately you have to deal with it.

  • You will need roughly 20 death certificates to get through the business “to do’s,” so order them up front. Without it you are at a standstill.
  • Remove his or her name from all joint financial accounts and transfer everything into your name only, this means meeting with banks, financial advisers, etc. Any place where money was placed you will need to visit.
  • Car Titles, what a pain. There is a form you have to complete at the DMV that takes about six weeks to process before any cars can go into your name. This will require you to turn over your spouse’s current title which they mail off and roughly six weeks later you get a new title with your name on it.  Even if you had a joint title, you still have to do this. You legally won’t be able to sell any vehicles or trade them in until the title has your name only.
  • Car Insurance must be transferred into your name only.
  • Social Security: when you lose your spouse at such a young age, you don’t see any of the social security they paid into. There is basically one pay out they give you that requires you to go to the Social Security office and set up an appointment with a representative.
  • 401k: You can’t roll this over into yours unfortunately. Only option is to keep it if they let you, if not put it into an IRA or cash it out.
  • Life Insurance:  Hopefully your spouse was as smart as mine and opted for this when he or she signed up for benefits. Always set up an appointment with human resources from their company.  John’s actually reached out to me which is how it should be but if you don’t hear something within 30 days, call them.
  • Accidental Life Insurance:  Talk to human resources within your company and make sure you know what you opted for with your benefits. You may be entitled to some assistance based on what you’ve selected. If you don’t have accidental life insurance, I would highly suggest that you get it. This definitely helped me with my company out in Oregon.
  • Taxes:  You will have to complete their taxes for the year they were alive, even when they are gone.  If you owe, you simply owe, there is no get out of jail free card there. If you can afford it, have an accountant complete them for that one year. Honestly it was worth it, I didn’t have to stress over it and it ensured everything was done correctly with the situation.
  • Bills: Make sure you have all account numbers/passwords changed to your name only. I would also suggest utilizing Quicken or a simple ledger to track cash in and cash out every 30 days. That way you can assess how your salary alone will handle monthly bills. Let’s be honest, having two salaries is really nice. There was always a backup plan. When you go down to one salary this can be a little scary especially when you were used to the way expenses were with two.  Be honest with yourself about it and look at your expenses and your new income.
  • Estate Attorney: you may need one depending on your spouse’s assets. I had to get one because John owned property in Virginia that I wanted to turn back over to his grandmother. This was impossible to do without legally becoming the executor of John’s estate through an estate attorney.
  • You will continue to receive mail for your spouse for years after their death. For the longest time I took this as a personal gut punch every time I opened my mail box. Let it go, it’s not personal, there are many that feel John should still sign up for cable or attend jury duty.  Simply throw it away or send in a death certificate.
  • I would suggest to both young and older couples to have a private file that you both have access to, that tells you passwords and where to locate each other’s stuff in the event that something happens.  John and I did not do this, but I was lucky enough to have a very organized husband when it came to our office. He had everything filed in alphabetical order from car titles to 401k account information.  It made things so much easier. Take care of each other when it comes to the business side so making those impersonal choices isn’t a headache.

The Personal Choices

These took me a while to learn. It has been almost 2 years since I lost my husband, and I am still learning how to walk through this every day. I have no doubt I’ll continue to learn for the rest of my life. There came a point about 30 days after he died where the house became quiet, the company was gone, and it was just me and the silence. It was then that my personal choices became really important in order to survive this. Because really, it is a choice. You can basically choose to acknowledge that you’re still here, still breathing with a full life ahead, or you can essentially choose to wither away and become a shell that is yes still here, but dead.  Here are some personal choices I’ve learned to make along the way.

  • 20 minutes. You will lose it, many times I promise. Especially those first six months. But when that happens and it’s bad, like the explosion of crying or anger. Give yourself 20 minutes, and then choose to move beyond it. I learned that 20 minutes was PLENTY of time to cry it out, but going beyond that is dangerous and what does it solve to allow yourself to become a puddle? It’s not bringing them back and honestly crying for that long makes me feel awful, like my head may explode. 20 minutes to do whatever you need to do, and then get up and do something, anything, but explode.
  • When people invite you to do things, say yes as much as you can. I remember not wanting to do anything, not even wanting to go to the grocery store. But guess what, you have to. When friends or family ask you to dinner, a hike, spin class, poetry reading, whatever, try and say yes.  It’s good to get out and remember those that are still here, that still care. Invest in those relationships even when you feel numb. My friend Rachael talked me into hip hop Zumba class once I got back from the funeral. I managed to go and ended up laughing myself into tears.  It was the best release for me at the time.  Say yes.
  • Physical fitness is huge. Grief can physically deteriorate a person if they aren’t careful. It will age you. Get outside, go to the gym, go to yoga, do everything you can to stay active and take care of your body, it will pay off and feel great. John and I used to get up every morning around 5:30 and run to our local gym together, lift for an hour and then run home. It killed me to keep doing this, but I did, even when I didn’t want to. Another widow once told me that if I could just trail run through the pain, lift through the pain that I would start to feel better. She was so right.  Exercise.  Feel the sun on your face.  Invest in your body.
  • Food.  Put the right things into your body even when you feel like eating McDonald’s because who gives a shit and what’s the point. Invest in your food choices. I drank smoothies every morning and have continued this morning routine ever since. I cut out the majority of all processed food, lowered my sugar intake, and probably tripled the veggie and fruit intake.  I also cut out all soft drinks. It’s well worth it. Grief can make the body very fragile and susceptible to health issues. Know what you are eating.
  • Drink in moderation.  Be careful here.  Like I said before, our bodies physically react to loss this big, and it’s so easy to drink ourselves into oblivion to try and numb the pain. Try not to do it, it won’t make you feel better and coming off of that high will feel terrible.  I pretty much stopped drinking for a few months after John died with the exception of a glass of wine here and there. If anything, I drank way more hot tea than I had in my entire life.  (Side note-people will give you so much tea when your spouse dies, like it is the cure all for everything).  Now, I don’t drink during the week unless it’s some special occasion.  I sleep better and seem to have more energy.  Don’t use alcohol as a substitute.
  • Dating:  This is a tough one.  I think it is different for everyone.  I can only speak for myself by saying that taking personal space and investing in my solitude has been crucial.  It has been 22 months since my husband died, and I am finally to a point where I seem to notice men again, and I seem to connect with some on a more spiritual level. From a physical perspective, I’ve stayed away from this other than kissing one man that led to tears. I think at the time I tried to force myself to be ready for something because I didn’t want to hurt anymore. Try not to do that. The reality is that you can’t rush these things at all, and by doing so you’ll only hurt yourself and someone else.  I think when you are married or in a very committing relationship with someone, sex becomes so much more than just a physical act. It’s an electrical, loving, crazy, passionate connection. It’s the most intimate thing you can share with each other. I think once you’ve experienced that, anything less than that would feel empty.  I’m waiting for that, the friendship, the companionship, and finally the passion. My advice to anyone in this situation would be to consider the bigger picture, consider the value in yourself and don’t settle for a quick fix.
  • Invest in something different, something you’ve never done before. Maybe it’s a cooking class, maybe it’s a book club, maybe it’s volunteer work somewhere. To list off a few I’ve done since moving back east: Making cheese, stain glass class, Cross country skiing, playing guitar, Church, Poetry readings, Writing, Hiking all the time, Rafting, Friendship cooking activities, stitch and bitch, spinning class. Do some activities you never did when they were alive, change up the routine and start some new ones.
  • Start every morning in meditation or prayer. Regardless of your beliefs, I believe starting your morning, expressing gratitude to the universe and asking for guidance in your upcoming day is crucial. For me, this is starting the day with reading scripture, praying, expressing gratitude and simply asking God to take this burden from me today. This can be many things for many people.  Getting your spirit in tune with the present moment for the day, preparing yourself to take on another day is important.

Heather W, Mara, Melissa, Barb, Alison, Jennifer, Heather J, Mary, Jenny, Carrie.  I say your names in the morning when I’m walking my dog. I think about your personal experiences, similar and completely different at the same time. No one told us, yet you’ve walked through it eyes ahead. I hope this helps others one day.

Erin Wilburn

Erin Wilburn is 32 years old, now living in the heart of the New River Gorge in beautiful Fayetteville, West Virginia. She loves exploring the outdoors whether it's on her mountain bike through the trails or in her kayak through the rapids. She moved to the Appalachian mountains a few months after losing her husband and best friend, John, in a tragic kayaking accident in Northern California on March 9, 2014. John was only 30 years old. Erin and John lived in Southern Oregon at the time and had a wonderful, adventurous life together. Shortly after his death, Erin began to write. Writing has been an outlet for her pain and experience so far with this huge loss. Her hope is that by being honest with herself and others about what it is like to walk through deep grief, it may help others as well. You can read more about her experiences and perspective on her blog. Erin has also recently put together the John Duncan Wilburn Adventure Scholarship that is associated the Shenandoah Community Foundation, in honor of her beloved husband. The scholarship is open to applicants and donors alike.

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