From grief to growth and beyond, widows can lead a rewarding life

Just about five years after my husband's death I wrote in my journal: "Hey, I'm much more than a widow. I am an independent woman!" Yes, I realized I was firmly in Stage 3 of widowhood—transformation—after successfully navigating the first two phases, grief and growth. Like many other women who also have experienced the terrible ache of death's separation, I'm finding this chapter to be highly satisfying.

Paul Simcock | Blend Images | Getty Images

This is when a widow is past the painfully vulnerable and confusing grief of Stage 1. Then, she focused on her immediate needs, applied for death benefits, checked her cash flow and didn't make big, irrevocable financial decisions. In yoga terms, it was simply a time to breathe.

Moving into Stage 2—growth—a widow takes care of financial business beyond the basics: updating their will and beneficiary forms, evaluating investments for appropriateness, making necessary changes with insurance coverage, deciding whether to stay in their house or relocate and, finally, considering pre- or post-retirement choices. If a widow has minor children, she thinks about money implications of being a single-parent family. In other words, a widow's life begins to feel more in balance during the growth stage.

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The final stage of recovery from a spouse's death, transformation, is a time of fulfillment. This stage can be very meaningful for a widow.

Often, a new purpose and passion evolves as she learns how to embrace life without her husband. She's now ready for more advanced wealth-management issues, including legacy planning and future family bequests, possibly through a living trust. A charitable component may be added to her estate plan. She also considers special family-related decisions, such as helping with grandchildren's education expenses or assisting an adult child with a start-up business venture.

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Psychic income

When a widow finds her new focus in life, it can become her special joy. This may be centered in her extended family. If she's not yet retired, professional work can provide much more than a paycheck. Supportive colleagues and a sense of accomplishment are important "psychic income." Perhaps her congregation, synagogue or nonprofit group offer meaningful volunteer activities, giving a widow a unique sense of intention.

For me, teaching, writing and speaking about widows and their financial issues has become my passion … my mission. Indeed, this focus of helping my "widowed sisters" and their financial advisors has been part of my own healing process.

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Travel or an enjoyable hobby may bring happiness to a widow during Stage 3. She'll want to budget accordingly, taking into consideration some increased costs for these activities. Sharing expenses on a cruise with a girlfriend can bring laughter and fun, plus save money.

Don't be a purse

A widow certainly may welcome a new relationship into her life during this chapter. If you're a widow who eventually decides to date again, be careful about a potential mate who looks for you to be their purse, providing financial stability for them. Be careful about the intentions of suitors who may consider you to be a soft touch.

It's best to keep money matters to yourself until you get to know the other person very well. If a special relationship evolves into remarriage, a widow can consider asking her attorney to prepare a prenuptial agreement. Likewise, if it's a committed long-term relationship, she'll want to talk about how the money will be handled with her partner—separate, blended or both types of accounts. A widow's financial planner can provide helpful guidance here.

Leave your own legacy

During Stage 3, what I call Legacy Lifeprint, activities can be very rewarding. These activities involve sharing a widow's stories, values and gifts for future generations. (Some of these activities are also referred to as legacy wills, heritage wills or legacy letters.) They can take several forms, including print, photo, video and audio recordings or documents. It might be a scrapbook, painting, memory book, cookbook of favorite family recipes, video, DVD and more. A special charitable component may also be included.

For example, several years after my client Judy's husband died, she expanded her legacy planning to benefit her family in a distinctive way. Working with her local community foundation, she created a fund that will pay an income to her children after she passes on. They will each receive an annual check on or about their birthday every year. Judy likes to think of this as a great gift she will keep giving her kids forever.

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After all those "birthday annuity" checks have been distributed, the remaining principal will be given to the university that Judy and her husband attended. At that time, a scholarship fund will memorialize their names there. Putting this future gift in place also made Judy an immediate member of the foundation's Heritage Society, whose privileges include invitations to attend enjoyable social events. (On a technical note, this gift will be funded with a portion of Judy's IRA account after she passes on. There will be no tax due on the transfer of this asset to this nonprofit community foundation.)

"Fulfilling activities can make Stage 3—transformation—a rich time in a widow's life."

Judy wrote a letter to her children, sharing some of her history about how she and her husband had met at this university years ago. She also tucked in a sentimental picture of herself and her husband taken on that campus. Her letter emphasized how happy she was to put plans in place for the scholarship fund that would carry their names forward after paying income to her children for life. As Judy said, "I really feel like I'm having my cake and eating it, too, with this gift plan!"

These and other fulfilling activities can make Stage 3—transformation—a rich time in a widow's life. She will always love her husband, and she will have his love for her forever . . . just in a different way during widowhood. Yes, she has loved, and yes, she has lost a lifestyle with her prior husband. But it is possible for her to move forward into a transformed and graceful life that is highly meaningful.