A friend and colleague called the other night with the worst news possible.

Her husband died while on a motorcycle excursion to the deserts of Southern California. Apparently they stopped beside the road, he got off the bike…and that was it.


I told my friend that I personally have seen this movie and I did not like the ending.

For a person who spends his professional life dealing with words, particularly those of the digital variety, I found that the English language can be totally inadequate when it comes to death, suffering and mourning. If you say that “you’re sorry” or offer your “condolences” what does that accomplish? In some respects, you feel that is what you need to say or have to say…but these words do not rise to the momentousness of the occasion.

Most of all, I listened carefully and let her express her feelings about the sudden end of a good 12-year marriage, companionship and friendship. The finality of death (not redundant) becomes so apparent, so real, so in-your-face at the memorial service and especially the burial or the scattering of ashes. She told me that she replayed in her mind her discussions with her spouse about his eating habits. I sensed that she starting to hold herself responsible for his death, a burden that is totally unfair. I reminded her that she had been a good wife and friend, she was supportive and when he died, he was actually doing something he loved…going on a motorcycle trip with friends.

As some know (or may have suspected based upon my opening of this particular post), I lost my wife to stomach cancer more than five years ago. The time period from diagnosis of stage-four-stomach cancer, fully methathesized and spread throughout the body to her actual passing was just short of six weeks. We had an opportunity to do some planning and to say goodbye, which is far better than my friend who lost her spouse suddenly.

My friend and colleague asked for some advice based upon my own experience with the death of a spouse and this is what I told her:

● Yes mourn the death but celebrate the life of your spouse or loved one. You can dwell on what led to the ultimate demise or you can remember all the good times that you had together. Personally, I prefer the latter.

● Do not beat yourself up for the passing of your spouse. Sure you may have encouraged them to change certain habits (e.g. cigarettes in my wife’s case), but ultimately it is their decision and their life. If you berate yourself over a death, then you will never get over it.

● Secure multiple copies of the death certificate from your county coroner/medical examiner because you will need them for your dealings with the Social Security Administration, credit card issuers, banks etc.

● And speaking about Social Security, credit cards and banks … immediately turn off all of these cards, accounts … anything and everything that could be the subject of identity theft. Even though there is a special hot box in Hell for people who would steal the identity of the dead, the recently deceased are a perfect target for identity theft. There are far too many people who will stoop this low.

● Call your tax accountant. My accountant instructed me to immediately (notice the repetition of this particular word) contact my Realtor. Why? When a spouse dies, the market value of the house, condo, townhouse whatever is made current for capital gains purposes. You will owe no capital gains for any appreciation of value right up to the time that a spouse passes away. For me, this was crucial when I eventually sold my house in the Bay Area and moved to lower-priced Eugene, Oregon. I am not an accountant and will never be one, so please double-check with your own tax advisor.

● Finally, do not keep your feelings to yourself. If necessary, get some professional help, but do feel not compelled to do so. Whatever you decide, talk to your friends and family. They know you and they knew your spouse or loved one. If they are your true friends, they will be there for you when you need them. And you will be more than open to returning the favor, if the occasion necessitates it.

Most of all, there is a future. Life goes on. You cannot unbury the dead or piece the ashes back together again. You have to accept the finality. You should always remember and celebrate, but at some point you have to live your life again. I know my friend will do just fine in the long run. It requires great strength and she has it.