The great American dream: you meet the love of your life, you date, get married; perhaps have 2.3 kids, the whole white picket fence thing. And then the unthinkable happens: due to natural or unnatural causes, you lose your beloved. You find yourself suddenly alone: eating alone, sleeping alone, trying to do the things you formerly did together: suddenly single. It’s not the way it was supposed to go…
According to the Bureau of Statistics, people are living longer. According to the mortality tables last updated by Social Security in 2009, the lifespan of a male born today is 75.9 years, and a female 80.81 years. It seems that this should be long enough for us to find the person we want to spend the rest of our lives with, but unfortunately, it seems that debilitating and deadly disease and car accidents apparently didn’t read the mortality tables. So, as a result, we find ourselves alone in our home that was meant to have beautiful grandchildren running amok and two wonderful grey-haired folks quietly rocking on the front porch. As a Certified Financial Planner™ I have had the opportunity to meet with hundreds of folks, most female, who found themselves in this position unexpectedly, and are coping and learning to live alone- Suddenly Single. While I have not personally had the experience, I have been close to many who have; and have helped to guide the new experience of a lifestyle found by the surviving spouse or partner. It’s not pretty, and I don’t wish it on anybody. The fact is, unfortunately, if you are in a committed relationship, most often one of you will pass first leaving a beloved behind. It’s one of the worst experiences anyone could have.
I spoke to a variety of people in this situation, to find out how their lives had been changed due to this mostly unforeseen circumstance. The answers varied greatly, but were very similar. All felt extremely lonely, living in the house or apartment that was formerly a home for two. Most felt the overhead to be overbearing, and dealing with the family finances became a chore and a very scary experience. One woman talked about the things that she never thought about: dealing with things like car maintenance, what happens when the TV goes on the fritz, even learning to work HIS remote. She thanked goodness for her brother who would come over every time the computer went on the fritz, as her husband would do whatever he did to get it up and running again. Cooking for one? It was easier to go out or bring in…either way, it was a lonely meal. Going out to dinner with friends lightened the mood, but it was always back to the dark, empty house. Another person started going to her doctor every three months for a checkup instead of annually- her blood pressure had gone up after losing her husband (I can’t imagine why) and she was petrified that she too would succumb to a shortened lifespan, leaving her children parentless. She also pointed out that her lackadaisical attitude toward taking her daily medications now became an obsession, the fear of becoming sick or disabled. While this is a very somber subject and article, there are positives: the surviving spouse tends to take better care of him or herself, and once the sun starts peeking out, finding a new life- not better, just new. Shopping sprees start again, and a new outlook on life emerges. Life isn’t over- just different. Be careful: there are no crystal balls in life (at least, that work) and be careful with spending as you walk the tightrope between emotional spending vs. need based spending. I don’t propose you become a curmudgeon, but don’t get carried away and rack up unnecessary debt.
From a financial planning standpoint (you know I would get around to this) preparing for the unexpected is crucial to avoiding a family disaster. Having your legal documents in order (wills, trusts, durable power of attorney, living will, health care proxy for starters) is crucial to avoid leaving behind a disaster, and a bear of a task for those you leave behind. Dying without a will (know as dying intestate) means that virtually anyone could put in a claim for the assets to leave behind, and the court battles can be long and expensive. Your spouse and children have enough grief to work through: dealing with the courts and lawsuits can be easily done away with if you plan ahead. Think of it as taking care of your loved ones by helping them to protect themselves. Don’t be shy about seeking assistance: never feel guilty, or feel weak- this is the time to rely on your trusted advisors to help you through this terribly unsettling time. Tell your children and especially your grandchildren stories about what life was like, because if you pass on, you take those stories and most importantly the memories with you. Share with them what life was like when it was at its best, and at its worst. Give yourself the time to grieve, for the process is different for everyone. Just remember, life goes on, and those around you will wait patiently for you to go through the process.
I’ve never been in this situation, but one of our Chestnut team who joined us recently suddenly lost her husband last year with no warning. Her advice? “Quit your old stupid job and get a new one with great wonderful people who are helping to turn your life around for the better and life will be OK!!!” We thank goodness she found us every day.
Thanks to Ann and Kathy from the Chestnut Team for their contributions to this article.