Moving Forward On Your Own: A Widow’s Path Towards Economic Empowerment & Life with Dignity
There was a long distance call today from an old neighbor.
She talked about how she had been with us in Makkah for 2 decade, how beautiful a house Fasih and I had created, Fasih’s high connections in Makkah, how we went for shopping sprees to Jeddah Malls, picnics to Arafat and Jeddah Corniche etc.
She made me so nostalgic for the good times and then switched to, “But Ilmana you haven’t changed at all.”
I asked her, “What do you mean? How should I have changed? I think I am a different person now.”
Her: “You always looked after yourself.”
Me: ” Kya??? So do you think ab different hona chahiye. Burehaal hona chahiye?”
Her: “Nahin. I know you were always very well groomed in your appearance, it hasnt changed now.”
Me: “You mean, it should have changed?”
Anyways I kept asking and she kept going circles. What she actually meant was that I don’t look like an old widow. But she was too polite to say that.
Even in my lowest moments, I am have never been shabby. Those who know me in real person know that and even tell me that. This is something probably I learned subconsciously from my mother who changed overnight after Papa’s death. She was a University Professor, a PhD, not retired when Papa passed away. She was economically empowered too. And at 80 she still is drawing a fat pension. But emotionally and psychologically she just broke down. That conservative concept of a “widow” in the Indian culture, which she has seen. All her friends, who subsequently became widows they turned the same. And it really hurt me to see her in that state.
There was a time in early stages of my grief, I hated to look into the mirror and dreaded the word ‘widow’ as so did my son. But it no more is. Yes honestly its no more. It only is a reminder that Fasih has transitioned from one world to another, and I am transitioning from one stage to another as a widow. I want to seriously break this stereotypical stigma associated with this word.
The above conversation and the the word ‘widow’ could have killed me inside, if I had not worked on understanding who I am now, and where should I be heading. And if not had taken grief counseling in early days.
On my arrival to Canada in early November, I paid a courtesy call to my psychologist, a beautiful Turkish-Canadian woman, in her late 40s who is also a widow, with a little girl of 7 recommended, me to read this book. “Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widow by Kathleen Rehl.”
This book bases its narrative on the premise that a widow’s overarching need is to feel secure and safe about her financial needs. And that is what determines her self confidence. This is definitely an important aspect knowing that 80% of women who lose their spouses prematurely( especially in desilands) are left in financial doldrums- in the form of no career, no savings of their own, joint financial control by the spouse( mostly in desis), husband’s credit card debts, other debts and in our desilands, where majority of the family property is owned by husbands, and when divided according to Sharia, the widow gets only 8%, or in other desi cultures grabbed by the children.
The problems of men widowers who are already economically empowered are different. What goes missing in their lives are personal needs more than financial needs. Its not the same for women widows who lose breadwinner husbands. Their primary need is economic stability. Rest comes later.
Money may look an ugly topic of conversation in loss of human relationships, but this is the harsh truth. I have been fortunate to have not only had a robust career and a business jointly owned by my husband and I and personal assets. But I still need to ensure this remains to be looked after and grown.
Almost all other doctors that we know were lost, were breadwinners, and their families’ lives turned upside down overnight. Alhamdulillah that was not the case with us. But what hurts even more is that, when it was time from past few years, for Fasih and I to actually reap the benefits of our hard work- with kids all grown up, to travel the world and Pakistan frequently, Fasih ditched us. Fasih was such a young at heart man that I made travel plans, enforced them upon him, and he just followed, whether it was a drive to Key West, a trip to Khunjerab, roadtrip along the Nile in Egypt, or a gambling-trip to Las Vegas. No we did not gamble except Fasih put 20 USD and lost it all. I was grateful that he lost.
Sorry, I digressed as usual.
So as she summarized, the book has divided the life of a widow into 3 phases:
1. Grief Phase
2. Growth Phase
3. Grace Phase
1: Grief Phase: For those women who are not economically strong, they have a double loss- of a person and of finances. And hence is a very deeply saddening and a scary place to be, in their lives. Most are not sure where to begin. Those economically strong, start to manage their and family’s finances alone. My psychologist remarked, “Ilmana, you have done very well.”
A majority of it she said was possible because I have a purpose to pursue- ie to run the hospital that Fasih and I had invested all our life savings into.
2. Growth Phase: With will power and support from extended family, some widows generally begin to start thinking of what they can do to earn for their family and also learn how to secure husbands assets etc. Starting work/ business, thinking of investing in an insurance, other investments ( for kids ), and discovering new talents, beginning to look after your physical and mental health are part of this phase. My Psychologist thinks I have now entered in my growth phase- the cognitive functioning has normalized. Good News. LOL
“You are thinking OK again.” She smiles. She was so pleased when I showed the silk stoles that have gone crazily popular.
She asked me, “Do you feel bad that you did this late and not in Fasih’s life?”
I told her, “Exactly my feeling. I did silk painting, but was too laid back and irregular.”
Her: “See. I thought so. No but this is not the case. This is how it was meant to be scientifically. Your normal brain was shut down in grief and as you began to recover, the right brain which is creative took over your left brain. And now they both will be slowly coming back, but right will always take the lead, because that is where you find more gratification.”
“So consider this as your growth phase. But beware, at times, two steps forward may lead to one step backwards too. The pathway of grief is not linear. And you will struggle with guilt in this phase for growing out of grief. But that is very normal too.”
Me: “OMG you know everything that’s going inside me.”
Her: “You are still doing much better and guilt is fine, just don’t let it overpower your growth. You will be here for sometime. I am not sure for how long. It all depends on your inner strength and will power. And this phase you will see your health get better too. You just need to make that a priority.”
3. Grace Phase: No many widows reach this phase where they are so economically successful that they regain confidence and think of a change in their lives. This stage is also called as ‘redesigning your life’ or repurposing it. Widows who get here see themselves as successful and happy.
My therapist told me, “if and when you reach here, You will see yourself first as a businesswoman, while earlier you saw yourself as a ‘wife’ first.”
Me: No, but I still think my kids and grand kid are the most important living pieces of my life. Business comes next.
Her: “My dear Ilmana, that is why you are now in a growth phase, not a grace phase. And don’t worry, seeing yourself as an empowered woman first will not make you less of a mother. Thats not how it works. I can predict this phase will see your silk stoles take a full fledged business form. Your right brain is working for it already. This phase will also see the results of your self care in the growth phase. This stage generally adds new business, new friendships, new financial planning, new relationships and charitable giving too.
Me: “What if I come across some major health issues 5-10 year down the road- some cancer, some chronic disease like diabetes or blood pressure?” She just shrugged her shoulder and did not have much to answer except that, “You keep trying your fitness as best as you can. Rest of course we cant control everything in our lives.”
Me: “What is we are hit with a car accident after all this?” “That is the fragility of life we cant predict or control. But lets keep doing what we can make a difference in.”
Me: “Haha I am just kidding. I know these stages dont make me immortal.”
I asked her, “Do all widows get to State 3?”
Her, “No. Most in fact don’t come out of grief, and they are those who are joined to the hip of their spouse. They remain economically dependent on others.. Some hang on the border of grief and growth. Some are happy with the growth phase. One thing is important, in order to reach the stage of Grace( which is the true widow empowerment) you need to be strong psychologically and financially independent. How many of our widowed mothers are that financially independent?”
It did totally make sense to me. Of course even for single women, married women, divorced women or widowed women, the path to a life of dignity is through economic independence. And when you have a loving supportive little family of kids behind you, who celebrates your independence, what could be more empowering.
And what was a courtesy call, ended up being a therapy session for over an hour.
Will end with a quote I have loved and emulated all my life: “Keep moving forward, even one or two steps, in your own way. Those who live out their lives to the fullest, unperturbed by the noisy clamor around them, are the true winners.”— Daisaku Ikeda
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