By Caryn Sullivan | St. Paul Pioneer Press | TeamWomen Member and Guest Columnist
This piece originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on December 9, 2018.
Word came by phone, delivered by a stranger I never did meet. Nine years ago, my husband, the father of four, died in a hospital emergency room after efforts to coax his heart back into service fell short.
In an instant I joined the club to which no woman wants to belong, though roughly 11 million do.
I spent months in a state of overwhelm, despite the rallying of family and friends.
When others returned to their lives I was left with wilting flowers, unsettling quiet, and the recognition that what were once shared responsibilities were now exclusively mine.
I recall sitting at my dining room table, mind and body numb from shock and exhaustion, staring at the stacks of paper. Blessedly, my sister-in-law Therese provided the structure and clarity that eluded me.
“We’re going to make a file folder for each document,” she said, gently guiding me through a process that would be manageable in normal times but was overwhelming weeks after we lost her brother.
With the additional help of a financial planner and an estate planning attorney, I spent months securing funds and benefits to support my teenage children and myself, tracking down passwords, executing a new will and trust – and more.
Several years later I met Christopher Bentley through a mutual friend who had encouraged him to read my memoir, Bitter or Better: Grappling with Life on the Op-Ed Page.
A Certified Financial Planner™ who has worked with many widows, my account of what I experienced as a relatively young widow offered Bentley a new perspective on what his widowed clients go through.
When a colleague died, Bentley gained further insight by helping David Laurion’s widow get her affairs in order.
As he worked with Liane Laurion, Bentley recognized widows need help with large and small tasks – securing life insurance benefits and turning off the water to outdoor spigots – because couples divide responsibilities and we don’t always have the knowledge or wherewithal to tackle alone what was once a dual effort.
With Bentley’s guidance, Laurion noticed she was making traction more quickly than some of the women she met in a GriefShare program, many of whom were widowed before her.
Bentley learned that, at their most vulnerable time, many widows rely on women they meet in support groups for help with financial issues. Their husbands may have handled the financial affairs so they may be uninformed. They may not have a financial planner or may distrust the one they have. They may not want to rely upon other family members for help.
Bentley’s research yielded an interesting discovery. While there were many books, there was no organization that provided widows with timely financial and legal guidance at no cost.
Recognizing the need, he offered to address it with some of Laurion’s new friends at no charge. Their gratitude a motivator, Bentley felt a calling to do more.
He credits his faith and Mark Batterson’s book, Chase the Lion: If Your Dream Doesn’t Scare You It’s Too Small, with inspiring him to create Wings for Widows.
For the past year Bentley, with Laurion’s help, has been constructing the framework and assembling a team to launch a nonprofit that offers financial and legal counseling to widows at no cost.
Wings for Widows operates with “angel teams” comprised of a Certified Financial Planner™ and a woman who has been widowed for some time.
Their work begins with a comprehensive assessment.
Following a well-honed process meant to ensure benefits are fully secured and obligations are satisfactorily met, the financial planner will help the new widow to get a firm grasp on her financial and legal concerns.
The other team member, a widow like Laurion, assumes care manager duties, providing encouragement, support, and resources.
They identify and secure available benefits.
They identify tasks such as transferring title to the husband’s car, the deed to the couple’s home, contacting credit card companies, and filing tax returns.
The review culminates in a plan of action – a roadmap – designed to organize, prioritize, and stabilize the widow’s situation.
If the widow has a financial planner, she can take the action plan to him or her to be implemented. If she doesn’t, Wings for Widows can make referrals.
The system is designed to ensure there is no conflict of interest for the financial planners. This is a nonprofit, not a marketing plan.
Though I’m no longer a widow, I well recall the panoply of emotions that accompany the initial shock, the flurry of activity in the immediate aftermath, and the realization that this is the new normal.
I’m mindful that not every widow has the support I was blessed to enjoy.
Wings for Widows offers a gentle hand, extended by both a financial professional and a kindred spirit, that will ensure new widows don’t face a dark and taxing time of life alone.
With plans to grow Wings for Widows far beyond Minnesota, Bentley has indeed embraced a very big dream.
As a board member, I’m honored to help him bring it to fruition, to help other women navigate their unimaginable moments with the support of one who has walked in her shoes and another who has the expertise to ensure she is as financially sound as she can be.
Caryn is one of The Global Resilience Project‘s 50 thrivers for a reason. As an inspirational speaker, award-winning columnist, author of the award-winning memoir, Bitter or Better, and attorney, Caryn offers a roadmap to a life well-lived. For more lessons, visit her blog.