Coping with becoming a widow or widower

You may have heard of chemo brain as patients struggle with memory and decision-making during and just after treatment for cancer. Not as many have heard of widow or widowers’ brain that results in some of the same problematic effects.

I interviewed a number of people and learned a great deal about their difficulties in adjusting to becoming a widow and living a life without a partner. The trauma and grief can cause the brain to shut down to a degree to protect the person from the pain of loss. It is grief-induced amnesia. This can result in forgetfulness, disorientation, confusion, poor decision making, sleep problems, fatigue and a whole range of symptoms that make coping a challenge.

Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome

I had no idea that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was one of the extreme possibilities after a traumatic loss until I spoke with Janet. She and her husband were on his motorcycle when they were hit broadside. Her husband died in her arms and she was injured as well. Two years later she still has flashbacks, anxiety issues, sleep problems, and nasty recurring dreams. She has sudden outbursts of anger that upset her daughters who are also dealing with their grief. Various prescriptions have come and gone as each has side effects that Janet cannot tolerate. She said she felt at the end of her rope with no real help in sight.

No so merry widows

I had spoken with financial advisors about dealing with the transition from couple to single that their clients experienced. Many complained that widows went on spending sprees, did not listen to advice, and often, changed advisors. When I spoke to a number of widows I did hear about retail therapy and increased costs for travel. I heard many comments from financial advisors about how widows dealt with stress:

“I just want a change of scene.”

“I do not like coming home to our empty retirement dream place.”

“I know I should be selling the place and moving on but I cannot face it yet.”

Family adjustments

Here are some other comments I heard in my interviews with families dealing with the death of a loved one.

“When their dad died, I swear my kids went off the rails a bit too. Their relationships were rocky just after and then the family fighting started and I could not handle that.”

“My daughter swooped in and started trying to run my life and take over decisions with the best of intentions sure but I had to do things my way in my time.”

“I was exhausted after looking after my wife for 5 years of her cancer journey and I had no patience with our kids. I felt physically and emotionally eaten away and did not have much left when she died. I was on autopilot. I didn’t want any pressure from anyone.”

Other family members are also dealing with grief and loss and the times may be very emotional especially when estate decisions come into the picture. Family dynamics can play out echoing old arguments. Decisions about the home and estate can appear to be overwhelming to someone in the brain fog of grieving.

Managing alone

Jennifer Black and Janet Baccarani, a mother and daughter team of financial planners, wrote a book called Managing Alone. It has a Top 10 list of What To Do First and a work sheet at the end of each chapter. It is short at 119 pages and to the point. With about 5 percent of Canadians losing partners to death each year, being informed and prepared can make the transition less traumatic.


  1. Julia

    Thank you for a kind and insightful article.

    I’d like to recommend Michael Alexander’s book How to Inherit Money: A Guide to Making Good Financial Decisions After Losing Someone You Love as it may help others in this situation. I’m not a widow, but I was an only child who was devastated with grief when my mother died, and found myself with an inheritance I was emotionally ill equipped to manage. I credit this book – written by a Toronto lawyer who himself inherited money via multiple bereavements – with helping me to handle it in a balanced manner. The book is now out of print (it was published in 1997), but fortunately second-hand copies can still be found online. It’s compassionately written and has really excellent advice.

  2. Walter Lord Charest

    Great article on coping with becoming a widow or widower. I hope that this will assist many who have dealt with this challenge. Well written…..Thanks for sharing…..Walter

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