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Widows Rock! Thriving in Stage 3 of Widowhood

By Kathleen M. Rehl October 14, 2023 Mindset

My husband died in my arms right before Valentine’s Day 16 years ago. I soon found a quote by Alan Watts that became my mantra for many months afterward as I moved through the initial phases of widowhood: “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

On the fifth anniversary of my late husband’s passing, I wrote these words in my journal: “I am so much more than just a widow. I’m a thriving, independent woman!” That day, I knew I was in Stage 3, a phase marked by remarkable transformation for many widows.

This chapter held its rewards for me, as it does for other women who experience the profound pain of a spouse’s death.

It’s a time of reawakening and embracing life with renewed purpose. It’s about finding joy, nurturing relationships, and leaving a legacy beyond our lifetime. For some, as it was for me, it may even be a time of reinvention. Each widow’s journey is unique, but the common thread that unites them is the resilience and strength to navigate this path with grace and courage.

As those of us who have experienced widowhood honor the past and embrace the future, we not only survive but thrive, and in doing so, we can inspire others.

Go from Grief to Growth

Stage 1, the grieving phase, focuses on immediate needs. Widows apply for death benefits, assess their financial situation, and avoid making significant, irreversible financial decisions. For those who practice yoga, it’s akin to taking deep breaths and finding new stability without their spouse. While deeply personal, grief can be a shared experience. Support from friends, family, or care groups can be a lifeline during this challenging time. Focus on self-care.

Navigate Financial Waters

As widows transition into Stage 2, the growth phase, they delve deeper into financial matters. This step may involve adjusting investment strategies, evaluating insurance coverage, updating wills and beneficiary forms, and contemplating whether to stay in their homes or relocate.

For those with minor children, considerations extend to managing finances as a single-parent family. Consider pre- and post-retirement issues. Life starts to regain equilibrium. It’s a time for careful planning, so seeking guidance from professionals experienced in assisting surviving spouses can be invaluable.

Embrace Transformation

Stage 3 can represent a period of fulfillment and transformation. This stage carries profound significance as new purposes and interests begin to emerge. As widows embrace life without their spouse, they may engage in advanced wealth-management issues, including more complex legacy planning, bequests, and trust agreements.

They may also consider integrating a charitable aspect into their plans. Some widows embark on new careers, volunteer work, or start a business during Stage 3. It’s a time to reflect on the legacy they wish to leave behind and how to ensure their financial resources align with their values.

For me, discovering a new focus in life was an exhilarating journey. Advocating for widows and their financial issues became my passion and mission going forward. That included writing, speaking, and doing research about widows and money. Indeed, this contributed significantly to my personal healing process.

Many widows have shared with me that they experienced renewed purpose through extended family bonds, professional work, and meaningful volunteer activities. Finding a sense of purpose beyond oneself can be profoundly fulfilling and transformative.

Find Joy

During Stage 3, spending time with loved ones, taking up a different hobby, or traveling to new locations can be especially fun. The companionship of family and friends, with cherished delightful moments and experiences, is terrific. I love hosting family gatherings with our adult kids and grandchildren for several days.

Same for friendship groups, such as the annual “girlfriends getaway” I do with three gals from across the country. We rent an Airbnb house for several days, choosing an exciting site to visit. We have so much fun together on these trips. I made a photo collage to lock in memories after we traveled to Asheville, North Carolina.

Manage Relationships

For those considering a new romantic relationship, exercise caution. Unscrupulous suitors may expect financial support from widows. Keep your financial matters private until you understand the other person better.

Discussing finances with a partner is imperative when considering remarriage or a committed long-term relationship. Finding love again can be a beautiful part of the journey. Still, it’s essential to approach it with care and consideration. Based on our research of widows who re-partnered, here are ten questions to ask your potential partner before committing.

As a wise 92-year-old widow told me, “Stay away from those who see you as a purse or a nurse.” She was right! I met some of those fellows, including one guy who asked for a loan on our second date. Bye-bye to him quickly! Through my research on widows and money, I’ve heard many horror stories from duped women.

I met Charlie four years after my late husband died. His wife passed away nine years previously. He and I got along well, including a similar philosophy about money. He’s also great with the outdoor grill, while Charlie says I bake award-winning gingersnap and chocolate chip cookies! Although I initially didn’t plan to remarry, we tied the knot at a small backyard wedding, with our blended families present seven years later. This year, we celebrated our fifth anniversary.

Craft Your Legacy

Stage 3 is an ideal time for sharing one’s stories, values, history, and gifts for future generations. These activities can take various forms, such as print, photo, video, audio recordings, or documents. They might include scrapbooks, paintings, memory books, and cookbooks.

Suppose you want to share your beliefs, aspirations, memories, and life experiences with your family and friends. In that case, this free eBooklet, Legacy Lifeprint Letters & Stories, may be helpful. I’ve written several legacy letters for my family members.

Leave a Lasting Impact

As I’ve done, some may include a charitable gift in their estate plan. After my passing, a portion of my retirement account will benefit Soaring Spirits International, an organization serving widowed persons. I included several other nonprofits promoting social and racial justice work, too.

Embrace Your Transformed Life

While most widows will always cherish their late spouse and their shared life, widowhood offers a different and meaningful path forward. It’s a phase where we can discover the depths of our resilience, our passions’ power, and our spirit’s strength.

Yes, we have loved. Yes, we have lost a significant part of our previous life. But, as we steps into this transformed life, we can discover a meaning and purpose that is uniquely our own. Embrace Stage 3 with open arms and an open heart. Widows Rock!

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Are you a Stage 3 widow or on your way to this phase? Have you observed a friend or relative in Stage 3? What personal insights can you share with other women? We’d love to post your thoughts here.

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I’ve been a widow half my life..when first widowed..sure men flocked but I was not left well off except for a mortgage and five retired since I didn’t make the income my male counterparts did my SS is less but my taxes and medical bills are the same as theirs….why? Being female if my income was 25% less then theirs why aren’t my taxes and medical bills 25% less? yes it’s been a hard row to hoe..

Kathleen Rehl

I’m glad you persevered despite financial obstacles, Jeanne.


I lost my wife of 41 years very suddenly in 2021. The issues I have faced as a widower are very similar to those described in the article. For me art, family, friends and travel have been lifesavers.

Kathleen Rehl

It’s good you have activities and people to help you move forward after your wife’s death. Some of the three stages of widowhood issues are similar for women and men, while others are often different. For example, some men have difficulty processing their grief and quickly remarry to avoid loneliness. It sounds like this isn’t the case with you, Gerry.


After enduring over thirty years of a bad marriage (and being seen as the “purse” because I always worked and he was often out of work but always had a long list of toys and adventures that were necessary to his happiness) and being to a stage where I was ready to end it, my husband was diagnosed with cancer. I then was the “nurse” for nearly seven years, still working full time, but traveling, sometimes weekly to take him for his chemo, appointments and tests (an eight hour each way trip). After he died, I was catapulted with no time to even get my breath, into a financial nightmare when I discovered he had over a quarter of a million dollars in credit card debt on cards I didn’t even know he had — and that he had set up his small retirement accounts to pay him the maximum while he lived, but end when he died. When our daughter, who has disabilities, was born, I had insisted we both have life insurance (which I paid for) — which was enough to pay death and remaining medical expenses, but certainly not the credit card debt. I had retired the last six months because he needed more care than I could provide while working full time. I had to hire an attorney and lived in constant stress and fear of losing everything — while continuing to care for our adult daughter with disabilities. There was lots of anger and no grief. I sold all the “toys” to pay for the attorney — who was finally able to settle things. It has been almost ten years and I have finally been able to let go of the anger. We live very frugally, and I am completely out of debt and able to live on my own social security and retirement. My daughter and I live happily together in the home that we didn’t lose – and I have absolutely no interest in a new relationship (and don’t think anyone wants to take on the package deal)! Not sure what stage that is, but I’m happy just where I am!

Kathleen Rehl

You are a strong woman, Nancy. A survivor who thrived despite difficult circumstances. Good to know you’re at a happy place now.


There is another type of widowhood to address here. One that doesn’t adhere to the usual assumptions of tender loss. In my case, my husband died twice. This was a highly gifted, charismatic and physically beautiful man. We were married for 34 years. He mentally morphed into someone unrecognizable, despite his capability of seeking mental healthcare. Shirking off my efforts to help over many years, we remained estranged for his last couple years until his death almost 6 years ago. When he passed away alone in the hospital I felt guilty, but reflecting on his life before me during stage 1, I was able to free myself of that guilt. It allowed me to move into stage 2 quickly. I lived there until 4 years ago when another life event occurred….saving myself from a job that was physically draining me and also sustained my cocooning of a limbo-like existence. Once I secured a part time job, I catapulted into stage 3. The tragedy of the last decade of my dying marriage and then the death of the most enigmatic husband a person could love, I naturally began focusing on caring for myself instead of keeping on a path of tragedy.

Stage 3 was an enlightenment phase for me. I still struggle with letting go of the imagery of having lived the most fulfilling times of my life juxtaposed by the intensely saddest. Just as you subconsciously know the seasons change every year, you will find the power of yourself in due time.

Kathleen Rehl

Thanks for sharing your trajectory through the stages of widowhood. Each woman’s path is different. You’ve navigated your experiences well.


I lost my husband to cancer on October 31st, 2022, so I am not there as yet. Today would have been our 35th wedding anniversary. I have joined one or two groups and do volunteer work …still a long way to go.

Kathleen Rehl

I wish you well on your journey, Linda. Glad to know you’re being gentle with yourself as you grow into a new chapter.

The Author

Kathleen M. Rehl, Ph.D., CFP®, wrote the award-winning book, Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows. She owned Rehl Financial Advisors for 18 years before an encore career empowering widows. Now “reFired,” Rehl writes legacy stories and assists nonprofits. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger’s, CNBC, and more. She’s adjunct faculty at The American College of Financial Services.

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