While her peers were starting families and charting their careers, 29-year-old Nepherterra Estrada was planning her husband’s funeral.
“After I lost him, I initially thought my life was over,” says the young widow about the months following her husband Martin’s sudden and untimely death at the age of 36. “I was paralyzed emotionally and I thought I was ruined financially, because he was the breadwinner in our household.”
The loss of a spouse, family member, or close friend not only leaves an emotional scar on surviving loved ones, it can also be financially and professionally devastating. Survivors who are overwhelmed with grief may feel unable to get out of bed, go to work, or pay the bills and often feel as though their lives are over too, says Dr. Gloria Morrow, a licensed clinical psychologist in Upland, California, and author of the educational DVD Suffer in Silence No More (Shining Glory Publications; $19.95). But such thinking is dangerous. “You can’t give up because he or she is no longer here,” Morrow says. “You must develop a realistic picture of your situation and take care of your affairs.”
For Estrada, now 31, the loss of her husband could not have come at a worse time. She had recently co-founded a public relations firm in Milwaukee, Mosaic Communications Inc., and needed to attend to it. Since her husband had managed the couple’s day-to-day finances, she admits she didn’t know as much about their financial situation as she should have. “I knew my company’s budget inside and out. But as far as my personal finances, I was just kind of along for the ride.” (For more on coping financially after the death of a spouse, read “A Women’s Guide to Managing Money,” February 2009.)
It’s not uncommon for survivors to feel incapable of doing tasks that they once relied on their loved ones to do, says Morrow, but learning how to do these tasks often supports the healing process.
After taking a few months to get over the initial shock, Estrada figured out where she stood financially—pulling bank statements, bills, and tax forms from previous years. “Although I’m a smart person,” Estrada admits, “I soon realized I couldn’t do this alone.” So she hired a financial planner, lawyer, and accountant to guide her. Following their advice, she prepared a budget and created her own retirement account with annuities, setting aside some of Martin’s life insurance policy for savings.
Then there was the business of securing her future. No longer able to fall back on her husband’s salary (Martin was a pediatrician), Estrada had to make her business profitable. Even on days when she felt sad or discouraged she worked constantly; Mosaic earned $275,000 in 2008.
While survivors may feel overwhelmed, they must come up with a plan long before their grief recedes.
“Acknowledge the pain and give yourself permission to grieve. However, you must get up and tend to your new reality, says Morrow. “Other things are still important.”
–Additional reporting by Ilana Polyak
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.