Status: Widow

The wife of Colonel Francis T. Spaulding, former Dean of the Harvard School of Education whose untimely death in 1950 robbed us of one of our most beloved leaders in education, SUSAN SPAULDING describes in the paper that follows the sensitive, often difficult predicaments with which she was confronted when suddenly left alone. As a Dean’s wife she had learned to hold her peace but to give advice when it was sincerely sought. There are many women who will thank her for what she says here.



ALMOST immediately hundreds of letters poured in. Protected by that blessed numbness that strikes simultaneously with bereavement, I read them all without full realization of what had happened. Then suddenly, out of a note from a woman whom I had not seen since my childhood, sprang the words “and now you are a widow,” and awareness came with them. I had lost one status and acquired another.

Within the next few days I began to learn what that new status represented to other people. For the widow herself it is a status to which there is neither a rapid nor a piecemeal approach, but it receives instant and alarming recognition from society. Swooping down from all sides come the Law, friends whose imagination and experience have given them comprehension, friends who have neither imagination nor experience, vampires whose chief prey are the bereaved.

The word status appears on many blanks that must be filled out in this modern world. I have now written in widow so many times that I have learned finally to do it without emotion. That is a long time to be a widow, a long time in living it not in fact. So it seems to me that I can illuminate for people who want to offer the right kind of help to a newly widowed friend the tensions which beset a widow. I hesitate to suggest that my thoughts apply to widows alone, for many of the same problems confuse all survivors. The loss of a beloved mate, however, is a peculiar loss which in essence leaves the survivor as truly crippled as would the loss of a limb. I emphasize beloved.

Not long ago a woman between whom and her late husband all love had been lost said to a friend of mine whose marriage had been a noticeably happy one, “I have felt awfully sorry for you since your husband died; you lost so much. As for me, when mine died, I didn’t care a damn.”

For such a woman, I imagine, the main problems are money and how to receive gracefully, without embarrassing them, her friends’ sympathy. The problems of a widow who loved her husband are something more than these.

The immediate ones are legal. The Law is at the widow’s side the very instant her husband dies. It is a great protector; a grabber, too, and a bewildering one to a person not used to legal terminology.

My husband was a considerate and solicitous person, not rich, not poor. Though he had reached eminence, his profession was one in which the rewards are not financial. What properly he owned at the time of his death he had earned by his own labors. What backlog there was we had saved together. We had tried to be reasonably provident in joint planning and management, and occasionally joint earning, for the future. He, like most responsible men, had been chiefly concerned to leave me and our children as well protected as possible in case of his death; so he had taken special pains, in buying our house and in deciding with me how to arrange our property, to discover what procedure would be to my greatest advantage.

Doubtless there are thousands of husbands who, in the interest of their wives, seek the advice of bankers and lawyers. From the conversations I have had with friends, with lawyers, with tax officials and others in recent months, I believe that many men get the same advice we got: that joint ownership — “either or survivor” — fully protects the survivor, be it husband or wife. And so it does, in one respect. It thwarts effectively and completely any designing kinsfolk or other persons who might try to claim the property. But it does not mean that the survivor has without due process of law the right of access to funds, or the right of disposal of other property, or freedom from an inheritance tax if the total value of all the properly exceeds the tax-free limit. Jointly held property, as my lawyer so repeatedly and bewilderingly expressed it, “ belongs to both but to each in entirety.”This is not double talk; it is legal talk. What it means simply is that a widow inherits any property held in her husband’s and her own name jointly.

Because of its interest in a possible inheritance tax, and because it wants to be sure that all just taxes owed by the deceased have been paid or shall have been paid before the estate comes under the control of the survivor, the Law clamps a firm control on all inherited property. From the instant her husband dies until the Court of Surrogate issues to the executor the necessary testimonial letters and Lax waivers, the widow cannot use jointly held bank accounts or sell or transfer jointly held real estate, including her home, or stock certificates, government bonds, or any other property. With the exception of a negligible sum of money, every bit of property which my husband and I had owned together was in our joint names. Laws vary from state to state, but in my own case the bank which had assured my husband that the joint account would fully protect me in ease of his death now had to tell me that I could not touch it until the will was probated.

For ordinary people there is a good deal of talking at cross purposes with bankers and lawyers. A man planning for his wife’s protection thinks partly in terms of availability of funds for her at the time of his death; bankers and lawyers apparently think in terms of predatory claimants. A widower, if he is the family earner as is usually the case, is not embarrassed by temporary inaccessibility of funds, since his earning continues and he has ready means. A husband should be advised, however, that this is not the case when his wife is the survivor; she should have some accessible money, say in a savings account in her name only.

Death brings instant expenses. Children must be brought home; in the ease of death away from home, transportation expenses must be paid; and current expenses of running the house must be met.

I was lucky in that a relative came to me at once and put some money into my hands. He knew nothing about my circumstances and he didn’t ask. “You’ll need something to operate on until you get things cleared up,”he said. I could have borrowed from my bank on the collateral of our impounded account. But as a friend of mine said later, “Of course you could have, at three per cent interest.”That interest would have been just another expense when small and large expenses were multiplying rapidly. For many widows a loan with interest could mean a hardship.


FAST on the heels of the realization that there is no usable money comes the probating of the will.

This is a job for a lawyer, but I doubt that any widow can be entirely free of some connection with it. Much to my surprise my lawyer asked for the addresses of the witnesses to my husband’s will. Fortunately I was able to give them, but I was curious as to why he wanted them.

“The witnesses have to appear,”he said, “before the clerk of the court, and testify that the signatures are theirs.”

“But they are in another state,”I said. “Supposing they can’t appear?”

“ In that case, a court in their state can handle it for ns. The will can’t be probated until we have their testimony, and if there are delays on their part, we shall be delayed here.”

I recollected that when my husband and I had made our first wills the lawyer who had drawn them up had called in to witness our signal ures two painters who were working in the corridor. These painters were elderly men, unknown to us, as were their addresses. I told my lawyer about this incident and said, ‘What would have happened if that first will had stood?”

“In this state.”he replied, “that would have meant a search that could have taken months. The witnesses would have had to be traced, and if found not to be living, then some relative or associate would have had to be found who could testify to their signatures.”

My husband had made two wills in his lifetime. In neither case did the lawyer involved suggest that he should review the will occasionally and make sure that the witnesses were still living and reasonably available for the place where the will was likely to be probated. The tendency, once a will is made, to put it out of one’s mind is apparently a universal failing. My lawyer told me later with a rueful smile that our conversation had prompted him to look over his own will, lie found that his witnesses were dead, and made a new will.

Our witnesses, as it happened, were able to appear within two weeks, and gave their testimony. Then there was a second delay. Because we had traveled toget her a good deal, my husband and I had I bought that we should consider the possibility of both of us dy ing at the same time, in a motor or train accident, for example. He had therefore named a second executor in ease of my inability to serve. Now I was told that this second executor had to waive rights! Since I was alive and obviously able to serve, it seemed to me that the legislators had merely cooked up still another way to keep the lawyers prosperous. Why should a second-choice executor, named to serve only if I could not, have rights, and why should these rights have to be waived? The explanation, if I remember correctly, made some sense. Supposing a testator dies leaving a will of so many years’ standing that the firstnamed executor has slipped into his dotage and is no longer capable of being a responsible executor.

The second choice then has a right to protest the lirst executor’s serving. Providing of course that the second choice is still capable, this right to protest actually protects the heirs.

After a not unreasonable delay because of the alternate executor’s living in another state and the necessity of acting through a conveniently located court, my lawyer completed the business of probating and I was given testimonial letters which, for every transaction involving release to me of property held by my husband singly or with me jointly, established my right to act. I was also provided with tax waivers and certificates of death. For these there were fees.

I seemed never to come to an end of the demand for certificates of death, which went on relentlessly for months as one small thing after another had to be settled. Most people have had, as small children, the sensation of a face, small in the distance, growing larger and larger as it rushed toward them. The reiterated demands for proof that my husband was dead began to give me a similar sensation. After repealed trips to the clerk of the court, I finally eased the situation for myself by getting a supply of photostated copies.

It is true that such emotional strain can be lightened by engaging a lawyer to take care of all details. He can watch for the proper dates and opportunities to sell or transfer property. Hut there are good reasons for not employing a lawyer for these affairs: one is the cost; and the other, the education of the widow. A woman who is suddenly left responsible for a family and for the property which must henceforth wholly or partly support them must take herself in hand and learn what she has, what she needs, and how she can reconcile the two. This is a tough assignment at a time of numbness and strain; but it has the advantage of showing her, more forcefully than any lawyer’s or friend’s advice and instruction, exactly where she stands.

For a woman who can take it, it is the best prod I know to keeping the chin up and standing on one’s own feet. For me the knowledge that I was learning a necessary lesson did not make repeated shock easier, but after a few months I developed a preparation for shock and an ability not to show it on the surface.

There is anot her kind of repetitive shock for which there is no preparation. I have mentioned the vampires whose prey are the bereaved. They are people who build up thriving businesses by turning to their profit the bereavement of another. A survivor, they appear to reason, has certain emotions: grief, confusion, helplessness, even vanity or social ambition. This customer is already softened up.

My first experience with these creatures occurred a few days after my husband’s death. He had been a veteran of two wars, and numerous letters were coming from the Veterans Administration; so when one arrived with the word Veterans in the corner heading of the envelope, I assumed that it, too, was from the Veterans Administration, and slit it open without further thought. Out dropped a large headline screaming my husband’s death at me, with a press photograph and a letter requesting a dollar for this souvenir.

I think that was the moment when I was first jolted out of numbness; for what I saw instantly in my mind was not myself, a reasonably tough and seasoned customer, but some inexperienced and impressionable widow of a young veteran, who could easily suffer serious shock from mail of this kind. Needless to say, the letter was not in any way connected with the Veterans Administration, nor could they take any action whatever about the use of a heading so cleverly worded as to give an undiscriminating reader the impression that the letter was from a bona fide veterans’ organization.

There were other nice little rackets which were a nuisance and which I presume to be routine for many widows. The “genuine gold miniature” of the deceased, sent unsolicited through the mail. Fifteen dollars, please. And the publishers of biographies who know how to appeal to survivors who have family pride or social ambition or only the desire to feel that their loved one had been a man of importance to his community or to his country. As a device for separat mg a mourning wife or daughter from some of her inheritance, the historical biography is distinctly superior to the oneand Hfteeu-dollar varieties. The biography, written with no trouble to the survivor, who is asked only to check it, will cost her nothing. But there’s a catch. You’ve guessed it ! A photograph! This time it will cost the survivor four hundred to two thousand dollars, according to how the photograph is finished for publication. The young man who tried me out on this one had all the tricks in the book at his command, including the declaration that I couldn’t have loved my husband since I was not willing to set up this kind of memorial to him, and a false statement that my husband had himself arranged for this biography and agreed to pay for the photograph. Such an arrangement would not have bound me, but he took a chance on my not knowing that.


THE tensions which I have mentioned so far are more or less temporary. There is another that appears at once but is a continuing one. It is one for which at least one husband, I. C. Rogers, has made an effort to prepare not only his own wife but other men’s wives in a littele book called leach Your Wife to Be a Widow. His concern is chiefly management of money. My first baffling experience, moneywise, was with insurance.

Without the least understanding of the language in the contracts or the remotest idea of how to tell which procedure was to my best advantage, I found myself compelled to decide whether to take the money in one lump sum, in installments, or as an annuity.

While my husband had given me the facts about the amount of insurance, he had not gone over the contract with me, assuming, no doubt, that I could read and understand it. He had always taken it for granted that I could make decisions and that I would not meet a crisis timidly. Furthermore, he had gradually turned over to me, as his own professional work increased and left him with diminishing time for family affairs, much family business that is usually the province of the male head of a family. I was, therefore, prepared to weigh alternatives, make a decision with whatever speed was necessary, and call it done.

A wise friend gave me two rules to go by, and I pass them on here because 1 think they are good rules for any widow to follow. One was “Don’t let yourself be hurried”; and the other, “Remember it’s your money you’re managing. Seek the best advice you can get, but feel free to check that advice with as many people as you want to.” These rules stood me in good stead.

But I had another rule of my own : once a decision was made and irrevocable action taken, the matter was a closed issue. No looking back, no going over the problem, no regretting. One friend who was doubtful about the necessity of my selling my house said two years later, “If you had only held your house, you might be selling it now at a great profit.” So I might. But the house is sold. Period. Forget it.

To decide about one’s home: to keep it or not; if it is kept, how to support it; if it can be supported, can life alone in it he endured; if it is sold, where to go? The books that have associations beyond their own value, the furnishings that represent a long living and building together — what to be kept, what to be given away, sold for a song, thrown away, or stored at a cost for possible use by one’s children? Roots are torn out whichever decision is made.

All this “settling” involves repeated review and deciding within an emotional framework which no widow can escape and which would be burdensome indeed to her family and friends if they were constantly made aware of it. Life must be lived for the living. A constant reviewing of decisions and mistakes (and no estate was ever settled without mistakes) is the surest path I know to chronic morbidity and to an insuperable harrier between one’s self and one’s family or friends.

For some weeks after my husband’s death I had an impulse to hold people off. It seemed to me that my trouble was my own and my children’s and did not really concern anyone else, that all the efforts our friends were making to help us were merely conventional gestures. Perhaps there was some defensive necessity to feel that I could stand alone. I remember realizing after a while, with a dull sort of surprise, that my husband’s friends were sorrowing and bereaved, that he had belonged to them as well as to me, and that it eased them to feel they could help me. And so I learned to talk things over with some of them, and to ask advice or assistance that I knew they could give. One gave me a great deal of help in the management of money. Another, who had been through World War II with my husband, went to the Veterans’ Bureau and got “all the dope" for me. A crew of men who had worked under my husband gave up their lunch hour one day to come to my house and do whatever was to be done that needed strong arms. Two others wrote, “Our home is yours and your children’s, any time you want to come,” and showed that they meant it by providing a key for me and initiating me into the idiosyncrasies of the heating and plumbing systems so that I could “come home” even when the families were away.

I think that perhaps the hard thing for most people to comprehend is how long the numbness, the shock, and the adjustment to a husbandless existence take; and I am not thinking in terms of a mournful widow. Most widows nowadays do not go about in weeds, physically or mentally. They are more likely to seem cheerful. But of necessity they exist in a present detached from past or future, because for the time being the present is all they can support. They live on the surface of life and know it, but they cannot explain this to their friends, and the friends may have no suspicion of it. It is a state that continues, however, for a long while. A sudden mention of her husband on an occasion when she would not expect it, an unanticipated expression of sympathy — especially in a public place — throw her, without a chance to get her guard up, precipitately into the past and undo her out of all proportion to the incident. This I say only to suggest that a woman who distresses her friends by an unexplainable show of emotion alter the period when she has supposedly “made her adjustment” (this is a popular phrase; I am not sure that I know what it means) is not necessarily nursing her grief. It only means that a widow who loved her husband has a very thin guard. Realization of finality is a long time coming.

But it comes. Long before her armor is tight and impenetrable, she is able to chuckle over some past conjugal incident, to enjoy some experience because her husband would have enjoyed it, to be amused with her family and friends by some recollected silliness of his. Curiously enough, the last surprises some people. They are the ones who have not trodden the same path and do not recognize the symptom that indicates that she has reached the great contradiction in a widow’s status: the emotional acceptance of her husband’s death and the realization that he still lives.