It’s that thing we are never supposed to talk about out loud. Generally speaking, when people talk about money-related issues, other people get nervous and anxious. Add the topic of widowhood to that money equation, try bringing that up at the dinner table, and you’ll have people sprinting for the doors with awkwardness and beads of sweat pouring from their foreheads.
Early on in my “after” life, maybe 3 or 4 months into losing Don, I remember posting on Facebook about the financial problems that come with losing your husband unexpectedly, to sudden death, at a very young age, and in the beginning years of your marriage. I don’t recall exactly what I wrote, but I do remember this one person’s response, which was basically rudely ordering me to not speak publically about my financial stresses or personal affairs. That it was inappropriate and not proper. Well who the fuck ever said I was proper? And excuse me – but “inappropriate?” I’m sorry. But when your husband goes to work one morning, and never comes home – and you’ve been sitting with that for a few months or years – maybe then you can come back and tell me again how inappropriate I am. Until then, sit the hell down and shut up.
Guess what? I’m going to talk about it. Right here. Right now. Why? Because it’s really really important, and because people that haven’t lost their life-partners have absolutely no clue what we go through financially when it happens to us, and because the topic is severely overdue. And if this topic makes you uncomfortable, then go read somebody else’s blog, because I live inside uncomfortable. Welcome to my world.
To start off, I will say that every widowed person has a different story. We are not all the same. Not at all. Many outsiders, or D.G.I.’s, as we call them in the widowed community (“Don’t Get It” people), like to assume that widowed people are left with all kinds of money, huge life-insurance policies, big houses, pensions, and a lovely gaggle of gorgeous unicorns that poop rainbows and glitter out of their asses. Many more D.G.I. types will rudely come right out and ASK widowed people what they were left with, or how much money they “got” from the loss of their partner. I have witnessed first-hand these types of questions, offered up to the widowed person in an accusatory tone, as if they are being prosecuted for some sort of crime. Guilty of being left behind. A life-sentence of being surrounded by people who will never, ever understand. Until, of course, they do.
The people I have spoken to who HAVE been left a home or a large sum of money or a life-insurance policy, often feel very real guilt and sadness in using those things. And that money almost never comes without many, many strings attached to it. These strings are often in the form of horrible in-laws or family who express the pain of their loss by turning against the person widowed and making them the enemy (I have lost count of the many AWFUL stories I’ve heard from widowed friends, who not only lost their partners, but then lost many family members in arguments over wills, money, possessions, etc.) Bottom line is this; when you lose your partner, everything that happens next is extremely complicated.
In my own personal story, every second after losing my husband, has been coated in a blanket of neverending money issues. To put it bluntly, it has been a living Hell. Don and I were only married 4 years when he died suddenly on that awful July morning. He was a paramedic full-time, and he had also picked up a second, part-time job at a Pet-smart, stocking and filing and organizing. In addition to all that, he also volenteered at the Pet-smart Adoption Center, helping with the cat adoptions and taking care of the animals in that amazing way that only he could. Meanwhile, I was an Adjunct Professor at a college (still am). Between us, we did not make great money. We were struggling. All the time. Living paycheck to paycheck. But Don believed in me, and he really believed that one day, I would make it big and become a great success as a performer or writer or actor. He used to joke: “I’ll work two jobs now so you can focus on your career, and then once you get your first big Hollywood film or sitcom, I can just live off you forever and retire early.”
Well, he certainly “retired” early. Ba-dum-bum.
My husband, toasting, from his ambulance …
From the very first second of losing my love, the confetti of money-related issues began to erupt. There was a hospital bill, to the tune of about $23,000, for not saving his life. They would like me to pay them thousands of dollars – for doing what exactly? I don’t even know. The man woke up one day, and then about two hours later, he was dead. What could they possibly have done in the maybe 90 minutes or so, that he went from the ambulance to the E.R. to DEAD? I don’t get it.
Then there were all the funeral expenses, and the overwhelming tasks of planning all that while simultaneously being in total and complete shock. “Renting” a casket because buying one is too costly and if we are cremating him anyway, why bother? That creepy box isn’t coming with him. And speaking of cremation, you know those lovely urns you see on TV or in the movies whenever someone is given the ashes of their loved ones? Yeah. Well … you have to BUY those. And they cost hundreds of dollars, for the nice ones. You can even get jewel-encrusted ones, with all kinds of ridiculous bling and shit. If you’ve got money to do that sort of thing.
Luckily, our funeral director was the sweetest man alive and understood that I didn’t have a dime to my name, and so it was very comforting when he told me: “Urns are creepy and over-rated anyway. You don’t need one.” And I didn’t. But just so you know, if you don’t have a lot of money and you get your loved one cremated, they will arrive to you in a ginormous cardboard box. The box is so large, it will stun you into silence. I have sprinkled Don’s ashes in 5 seperate places, currently. So far. And I still have a whole lotta Don left-over. There is a lot of Don in that box. Well, technically, there is a lot of Don inside that container, inside that box. For inside that box, is a very dull-looking, discolored, grey-ish container. Inside that container is a little card with the name of the crematory, and your loved one’s remains. It is all very un-romantic and technical, when you don’t have the money to not make it so.
There are many, many unfair things about death. The fact that it happens at all, and never when it’s convenient for us, is unbelievably unfair. But beyond that, and beyond the emotional turmoil and loops of madness that grief puts you through; there is the fact that when your spouse dies suddenly, like mine did, you lose so much more than just your spouse.
In one second, I went from two paychecks to one. In one second, I went from having health insurance, to not having health insurance. (I still don’t have it) In one second, I suddenly knew the importance of having a life-insurance policy, because we didn’t have one, and now I was fucked. And as the weeks went on, I found out other completely unfair things about death. I found out that the only thing I would ever receive from Social Security benefits for the death of my husband, would be a one-time payment of $250, to “cover funeral expenses.”
Is that a joke? Seriously? Because if it is, it is pretty damn funny, seeing as how funeral expenses turned out more in the $8,000 range, which means the Social Security Department is either incredibly bad at math, or they are a bunch of bad-humored assholes. I will also never receive my husband’s Social Security benefits when I turn of retirement age, because when your spouse dies, they take the higher of the two people, and give you that persons benefit amount. So, that would be ME, since I’m alive and breathing air, and continuing to work my ass off. So, basically, he put his hard-earned money into thin-air and had money taken out of his checks his whole life for no reason. I wont even get any of it, ever, which I know would make his blood boil, because he wanted so badly to take care of me always.
My husband was also an Air Force Vet. He served in Desert Storm, and he was a Flight Crew Chief for just under 10 years. The Air Force showed up at his funeral to do their pomp and circumstance and their TAPS and their folded-up flag to me, thanking me for his service – but when I called to see if there were any type of benefits or help available to widows of veterans – I was told that once again “you dont qualify”, because in order to be considered a “retired” vet, you have to serve 12 or more years. So, he served his country just 2 years short. Unbelievable.
I also found out that because Don and I didn’t have children, that I don’t qualify for a number of different types of “help” or benefits available to widowed people with children. So, because we made a conscious and responsible decision to wait to have kids until we were more financially stable and could offer them a better life, now I was being punished. Everytime I would go into some office to see if I could get some help of some kind, I would get the standard response of “Oh Im sorry. That program is only available to people who have children.” Great. Thanks for nothin’. And if I wasnt being told I dont qualify for help due to not having kids, I was being told that I “make too much money” to get medical care, or qualify for help with my bills, or other things. Oh, is that so? Funny, because I’m having trouble getting through the week on the TOO MUCH MONEY I’m making. What a laugh.
The first few months after Don’s death, I was riddled with phone calls and letters and more phone calls from bill collectors. Even though I had closed his accounts and sent his Death Certificate to about 956 different companies and people, they still called. They still harassed. They still wanted money that I didn’t have. The hospital bills kept coming in the mail. Thankfully – or stupidly – those bills always arrived in his name. The bills were addressed to the patient – Don Shepherd – who is dead. So they were basically sending letters saying: “Hey there Dead Guy! You still owe us money for not saving your life after your heart attack! Pay up! – Signed, People Too Dumb to Be Alive.”
A carecredit account for some major dental work Don had done, wanted me to pay the $6,000 balance owed, because apparently I was listed as the “secondary name” on his account. After letters sent to them by me and months of telling them to stop bothering me, I thought they had finally gone away. Recently though, I was informed by them that I’m being sued for the money. More than 2 years later, these dumb-ass, greedy shits still want their money from a dead guy. They are suing me. Over my dead husband’s dental bill. Awesome.
More bills piled up, more calls, more red tape issues, more sending letters and calling people to tell them over and over again that he died. His bank. His student loans. Car insurance. On and on and on. The real kicker is that all this shit needs to be dealt with in the beginning weeks and months, and in most cases, the spouse is the only person they will talk to, so I had no choice but to take care of these vultures myself, one by one, even though I had the emotional capacity and strength of a soggy, wet noodle.
Then, after the phone calls started to finally die down some, and all the people went back to their lives and everyone got back to the business of their “normal”, I was left inside of the tiny apartment we shared. It was filled with stuff and things from a life that was no longer breathing. I was tripping over guitars with no sound, and tennis rackets with no swing, and EMT uniforms with no beautiful, tall, handsome adorable man attached to them. The bills kept piling up, and I only had ONE paycheck now instead of two. How the hell was I supposed to pay for my life now? The rent doubled, the parking garage doubled, the electric, cable, phone, car bills … all double the cost, all on my shoulders. My part-time teaching job barely kept me alive, and I survived for months off that and the incredible generosity of strangers, family, and friends. People sent donations for me to the funeral home, or to my home. People donated to my blogsite to help me out. (and some people still do, now and then, which is so unbelievably appreciated and which I am continously thankful for). My friends in the comedy community produced a Comedy Benefit Show to honor Don, and to help me EXIST! We did a huge show at Gotham Comedy Club in NYC, and I performed, along with many comedians, including a cameo appearance from Jim Gaffigan, and a headlining evening by my dear friend Elayne Boosler. Everyone rallied together to make sure that I was okay. I used that money to get myself through that first year. To try and pick up the pieces of what used to be my life. To figure out what to do next ….
At the Comedy Benefit – our friend Nancy, Elayne Boosler, me, and my mom
Everything is easier with two. When Don and I were broke, which was all the time, I was never afraid. I knew we would get through it together, and that he would keep me laughing, and that one day, we would be okay. Don was always giving me things, and making sure I was safe. If he had $3 in his pocket, he would give it to me, and leave himself with nothing. That is who he was. After he died, nobody was leaving me their $3 anymore. I just had nothing.
Eventually, everything that I did have turned to shit. Don’s old, beat-up car that we shared and that I drove to work all the way from NJ to Long Island, started to become unsafe. Unreliable. With the help of my parents and my brother, I had to sell it. It broke my heart, because that car was such a part of him. Then I had to leave our apartment, because I could no longer afford living there alone. I had to look for a new place – one with a roommate. Moving out of the place where we lived our life together was devastating, and so beyond hard. I’ve had to move twice since his death, and now here I am in Queens, New York, just over 2 years later, still trying to make enough money to survive on. Things are easier having a roommate, but they are still much harder than they should be.
I’m 41 years old. Next week, I will be 42, and life is much harder than it should be for someone my age. Aside from the fact that I am forever changed by the love and the loss of my husband, I continue to deal with struggling each day just to get by, and I dont think that is fair. I think that if you suffer a loss this huge in life, there should be better help available to you. Grief causes so many things to happen to you that you never would have seen coming. Loss of sleep. Exhaustion beyond belief. Dry skin. Ezcema. Heart palpatations. Weight gain. Panic. Anxiety. Fear. Fear of dying. Fear of living. Fear that you are having a heart-attack like he did.
About two months after my husband died, my parents insisted that I see a doctor. Just to be sure that MY heart was healthy, and that nothing was in horrible shape. I didn’t have a doctor, and I had no insurance, but I decided to use some of the money people had donated to get myself a physical and some basic bloodwork. The doctor was very cruel. He put me on a scale and he told me my weight in disgust, then said, without ever looking at me: “You are obese.” The way he said it made me feel like I was a clump of dirt lying inside a sewer somewhere. I told him that my husband had just died and that I probably wasn’t eating right or doing much of anything right, and he said blankly: “We all have our problems.” He never looked me in the eye. My bloodwork all came back normal, but I sobbed off and on for hours after that appointment. I couldn’t believe that I had to pay this man almost $400 for making me feel like I’m not even human. I wrote a letter to his office months later, telling them what a terrible doctor he is and that he failed his exams on compassion. Im sure nothing came of it, but it made me feel slightly victorious just writing it.
So here I am, in my second apartment with my second roommate since losing my love, and today I saw my second doctor. I still don’t have insurance, and I still can’t afford a doctor, but I was scared I might be pre-diabetic, because my dad has Diabetes. I was scared that this weird lump on my back is something more than just an absess which can be treated with antibiotics. I was scared that another doctor wouldn’t understand what grief does to the body , and what stress does, and what stress from having NO MONEY does, and write me off as just some lazy, fat girl, writing in his chart: “Obese.”
After a TON of red tape and help from my grief-counselor, and looking up endless links and phone numbers for possible medical clinics or low-cost doctors available to people with little money and no insurance, my mom found a place in NYC that takes patients without insurance. And I went. And I got myself a thyroid test, blood sugar test, and every other test known to man. And this doctor was a woman, and she didnt mention my weight. I did. I told her about my husband dying and some of the stuff that has happened since, and that I had just joined the local Y so I can start swimming, and that I’m working on everything, it’s just all so hard. She said: “Well you’re doing great. Its no wonder you have all these issues going on – when you lose someone suddenly like that, especially your husband, your other half – your body gets thrown into shock right along with the rest of you. And when you don’t have money, that causes stress. And things like ezcema and anxiety and not sleeping, can all be triggered by extreme stress. I cannot imagine what you go through, honestly. Looks like all things considered, you’re doing pretty well. Give yourself some credit.”
And the whole time, she looked me straight in the eye, the way that humans do when talking to other humans. So even though today, as I sit here and write this, I had to pay out almost $300 in blood tests and appointment and prescriptions and I have no clue how I will make it until my next, end of the month paycheck – and even though I’m still scared to death that one of those tests will come back not the way I want it to – and even though 2 years later, I still can’t afford basic things for myself like regular haircuts/styles, new clothing, bras that fit correctly, shoes that don’t hurt my feet, food that is healthy and maybe even organic, and a giant list of other things that many take for granted — even though all of those things are true —
There is a tiny, little, microscopic part of me now, that wasn’t there a year ago, or two years ago, when I was still fresh from this loss. It’s the part that believes, like Don did, that I will someday not feel this way. That I will do bigger things. That good things will happen and come to me. That I won’t ALWAYS have to struggle like this.
Because really, it’s about damn time.