Losing your mate generally means that you are now solely responsible for a variety of tasks, some of which you probably haven’t paid much attention to previously. It also means tackling a lot of items that are not routine for most of us (like estate taxes, wills and trusts, probate, etc.). Handling these practical matters can add considerably to the emotional stress you are already feeling. While some stress is impossible to avoid, here are some inexpensive (or free) things I found helpful and that might help you in some small way.
1. STICKY NOTES
Buy a pad of sticky notes and use them to write yourself reminders of critical tasks that you have been forgetting. Place the written notes in the most logical spot based on your habits and routines.
For example, I have a lifetime habit of washing my face and brushing and flossing before bed. I do this on auto-pilot no matter how tired I am. But “locking up” the house for the night was one of the tasks that Jerry routinely did. After waking up for the third time to discover I had not locked the doors, I posted a large sticky note on the bathroom mirror that said “LOCK THE DOOR.”
You can also use the sticky notes to take care of yourself. At a particularly low point, I was feeling very much alone, unloved and unlovable. One morning on waking I remembered this quote, wrote it on a sticky and stuck it on the mirror at eye height. It’s from Kathryn Stockett’s book “The Help:”
“You is kind, you is smart, you is important”
Sometimes you just need to remind yourself!
2. SHRED BOX
As you are going through paperwork—whether personal or household business— don’t shred or pitch on the first pass! Grab an empty box (copy paper boxes with lids work very well) and use it to hold the items you plan to discard. Wait to shred or throw out until you are absolutely certain there is nothing in that box you might need or want.
Suffice to say I learned this lesson the hard way and it cost me a few hundred bucks and a lot of aggravation when I needed it least.
I’ve also talked to people who got rid of correspondence and pictures of their spouse because they were so angry at them for dying. There may be an exception or two out there but the majority later regretted the decision immensely. If you’re feeling that way, you might want to just pile it all in a box and put it out of your sight. Revisit it in a year or two and, if you still feel the same, pitch!
This is probably not the time to rely on memory, no matter how great yours is normally. Buy a 5 subject notebook with pockets. Designate each section for a particular type of task and then keep it accessible. Use it to keep the best notes possible while you are working through settling your spouse’s life. Use the pockets to have a place to tuck related materials or notes you may take when your notebook is not at hand. My subjects were: household, legal, financial, miscellaneous and lists (see item 4 below).
Depending on your personality, this probably sounds either incredibly obvious or like total overkill! Before Jerry died I would have probably thought it obvious myself. But it took me two months of feeling like everything was chaos, mayhem and disorder before it occurred to me to apply the project management skills I used every single day at work to winding down Jerry’s life digitally and legally. It was not a miracle cure for my stress level but it did help take it down a notch—and when you’re at DEFCON 5, a dial back to 4.5 is HUGE.
Whether it’s a grocery list or a to do list, most of us use some kind of list-making as we go about our daily lives to stay on top of things. Make yourself task lists for each of the chores you need to undertake to settle your spouse’s estate. Sometimes it helps to break it down into small chunks so that you get the satisfaction of lots of cross-offs. I also found it very helpful to start a running gratitude list.
Making a gratitude list sounds very Pollyanna-ish but, for me, it helped remind me there was good in the world at a time when it felt alien and harsh. Those who are closest to us are doing grief work of their own and since we all grieve very individually (even for the same person) it can lead to lots of misunderstandings. When I was feeling really pessimistic it helped to read through my gratitude list.
The list included a co-worker to whom I’d never been close but who had lost her father at age 9 and started taking the time to say hello and make small talk with me almost daily. The staff at my husband’s bank (the road to partnered happiness being paved by separate checkbooks in our case) made the list by helping me take care of a multitude of small tasks efficiently and cheerfully. It helps to find the good in small things when you are in a major goodness drought otherwise.
Unfortunately, I didn’t learn this until several months after Jerry died but it is another way to take down your stress level. The 4-7-8 breath technique can be used just about anytime, anywhere. You can learn it very easily by watching this video from Dr. Andrew Weil.