'Widowed People Are Invisible in This Society'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s the core sentiment of this reader’s note. Patricia adds, “I didn’t fully realize that widows were a target [for greedy men], since people think you struck it rich.” But let’s start from the beginning:

I don’t know if you are still accepting people’s down-and-out financial stories, but here goes. Mine begins in 2001, when my husband died in a car accident on the Garden State Parkway, coming home from work. The police came to tell me, and from there it was my job to break the news to my daughters and his parents.

It took a while to take care of the finances. Thank God he had life insurance; he left me $200,000. Everyone would think that’s a fortune, but it was only two years of his income, and I stretched that money for 14 years.

He had opened four credit card accounts in my name I didn’t know about, and he owed around $20,000, so my first step was to pay that back. He died without a will, the house was in his name, so I had to hire a lawyer and go to court to fight for financial control of the house, since legally it would be inherited by the children. That cost around $10,000.

I’m not even mentioning the expense of the funeral and burial, so as you can see, the “fortune” I inherited was eaten away. The complete mess of his finances and legalities kept me from being able to move on. And if you are getting the uneasy feeling that my husband was up to some shady stuff, you would be correct, but I digress.

It took me three years to feel like I was human. I won’t even go into the Prozac that people told me to take because you better get over it quick; nobody’s got time for people who are bereaved, especially as young as I was.

While all this was going on, I went back to my substitute teaching career. It was 9/11, my first day back, subbing for a teacher who lost her father in one of the towers. I had been teaching in that school district for years, mainly special ed. I scrambled to take the Praxis [a teacher certification exam] and secure a teaching position. I aced the test and was interviewed by the school I was already working for. But they went with a young, fresh new face, and I ended up subbing for her when she went on her honeymoon and maternity leave.

I started substitute teaching for other school districts and went on more interviews only to be passed over for wives, husbands, sons or daughters of other teachers or administrators. I finally gave up after I was told by another teacher that I would never get a job because I was too old, even though I had excellent references and everyone said I was a gifted teacher.

I had no choice but to try and got a full-time position with benefits, so my kids could get health insurance. I got a job in graphic design for $9.00 an hour. In the eight years I worked at that job, I got three raises, and by the time I left, I was earning $9.60 an hour.

After that I got a job working minimum wage in a dementia unit. It was within walking distance from my house, so I promptly gave my 2006 Honda Civic to my oldest daughter (it was paid off, but I couldn’t afford to repair it). I never owned a credit card after the death of my husband.

I live in New Jersey, with some of the highest property taxes in the country, so this impoverished me even further. When I got the house refinanced, the agent offered me a home equity loan of $100,00, which I flat out refused knowing I could never pay it back. I sold the house ( at a bargain price because the economic crises forced me too; I guess I lost over $100,000) and bought a condo for cash in a dodgy neighborhood, so now I don’t have a mortgage.

I could not give my kids a college education. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, since the jobs are gone.

The one thing that saved me throughout those dark days was Social Security. Unfortunately Reagan needed to fund his Star Wars program, and he did it by taking away Social Security for widows once your child is 16. Then the child loses it when she is 18; it used to be that children would continue receiving it until they got out of college.

I gave up dating years ago. Basically every horny man within a 20-mile radius was after me when my husband died, including the local cop, who waited six weeks to ask me out when I was walking my daughter home from school. I didn’t fully realize that widows were a target, since people think you struck it rich.

Now no man wants to date me, since I am making minimum wage, don’t have a car, and live in a bad neighborhood. But I am more than okay with it. I am a practicing artist and I paint and draw, and in the evenings I go out for a run. I basically buy a minimal amount of groceries and walk everywhere. I got rid of cable long ago. There wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to be anything but poverty stricken, since this is the norm for widows.

One great thing about being middle aged is that you are essentially invisible; people, especially men, don’t notice you anymore. It’s like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility, which I use to my advantage. Widowed people are invisible in this society anyway. And we can’t really afford to go out.

I am one of the lucky ones, since I stayed out of debt before the financial meltdown. None of my friends did; they are either upside down on their mortgages or trying to get refinanced and all of them got home equity loans, most of them are in very bad marriages, but they can't leave because of finances. Which just makes me glad I am single.

America is a place I would like to leave; it is a cruel country that doesn’t give a damn about the most vulnerable in our society. But unfortunately I am stuck here—another economic consequence of being poor. We bail out banks and then the banks squeeze us dry. It is not our fault. It certainly isn’t mine, that my husband died.

I am just lucky I am creative. I have turned my back on iPhones and shopping of any kind, online dating, or leasing a new car. I am not rich but I am happy and productive and I am able to live a life on my own terms.