Expert offers story, advice on widowhood
FAIRMONT, Minnesota- Judy Bryan, Sentinel Staff Writer
When Dr. Kathleen Rehl’s husband died 10 years ago, she experiences the same overwhelming sense of loss and grief that others feel after the loss of a spouse. She has turned that traumatic time into her life’s work – sharing her story and helping other widows to maneuver the emotional and financial gauntlet they face.
Rehl visited Fairmont recently as part of the SmarterWomen Series of Sweet Financial Services of Fairmont, a program dedicated to empowering and educating women to take control of their financial future. A nationally known author and speaker, typically addresses groups of 30-40 people but her local visit drew more than 100.
Using her own experience as a foundation, Rehl relates the knowledge she has garnered with her audience.
“There are about 13 million widows in the country today, and it’s growing by about a million a year,” she said. “Widows are one of the fastest-growing demographics in the country.”
She rattles off a list of surprising statics gleaned from the U.S. Census Bureau.
- 80 % of all men die married.
- 80 % of all women die alone.
- 70 % of all women will experience widowhood in their life-time.
- The average age that a wife becomes a widow is 59.
Rehl separated the phases of widowhood into three stages – grief, growth and grace. The initial shock and grief often impacts a women’s cognitive thought, rendering her confused and unable to make smart decision, regardless of intelligence or education.
“I thought I was a pretty smart woman. I had a Ph.D., I was a certified financial planner, but I couldn’t’ remember things. I couldn’t find my car keys. I thought I was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, she said.
Five big issues plague widows. Initially, they rush. They feel they must get the estate settled and invest any insurance proceeds immediately.
“But they really need time to heal emotionally, because of that cognitive disconnect,” Rehl said. “They should not make any big irrevocable decisions.”
Widows also can be unaware.
“Be aware of wolves who prey on widows,” Rehl cautioned. “There are financial wolves that go after widows because they know that they’re along and probably haven’t had much financial experience before.”
Dealing with a house creates another issue. Rehl said some women feel the house is now too big of holds too many memories and sell it without adequate thought. Some remodel it for a “fresh start,” investing more in the makeover than the house is worth.
Then there is the new financial situation. “There’s going to come a time when they’re going to have to take an objective look at their money,” she said. “What may have been a good investment as a couple is not necessarily good for an individual woman.”
Lastly, don’t turn into a bank.
“Don’t be a purse for others,” she said. Often, people urge widows for financial support for a new business or investment. No decision should be made without first checking with a reputable financial planner.
Some widows do remarry, Rehl said. Of those ages 55-65, 8 percent remarry, but only 2 percent of widows over age 55 remarry.
“But the majority of widowers, men who have lost their spouse, remarry within a year,” she said.
“If you start dating again, don’t be a purse. Don’t be a nurse, and God forbid, don’t be a mother.”
Rehl summed up her advice alphabetically. A-Always ask questions. B- Buyer Beware. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. C- Take care of yourself. Exercise, go for a walk or get a massage.
Rehl advises women to learn about a couple’s finances now, as unpleasant as the reasoning is.
“Take little steps. Don’t try to do it all at once,” she said. “It may be hard to go through now, but it’ll be worse if it’s not taken care of. What are the passwords and PINs (personal identification numbers) on accounts? Is the will up to date? Are the beneficiaries correct?”
Throughout her presentations, Rehl relates situations she has experiences or been told to personalize possibilities. She shared a story about a “heartbreaking case” in which a man had a work related insurance policy with his ex-wife still listed as beneficiary, a situation that was emotionally and financial devastating to his widow.
Last year, Rehl completed a major study with academic teams from several universities, publishing the findings about widows and financial matters in a professional financial journal. Her work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, AARP Bulletin and more.
But it is her book, “Moving Forward On Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows,” that perhaps has had the biggest impact on widows. The book, available on Amazon.com, has won several national and international awards, and Rehl describes it as a tool “to get a real start in Checklist format.”
Proceeds from her speaking fees and book sales are channeled through Moving Forward On Your Own foundation, which she set up a few years ago. To date, the non-profit foundation has awarded 27 grants to other non-profits that help widows. Rehl lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., but spends winters in Tampa Bay, FLA.
* Raymond James is not affiliated with and does not endorse the opinions or services of Dr. Kathleen Rehl.