Grieving advice that sucks: “Don’t make big decisions for a year”

One of the more useless pieces of unsolicited advice I’ve gotten regularly since my husband died is “Don’t make any big decisions for a year.” I’ve been told this by friends and virtual strangers, people who have been widowed and people who have not.

I find it to be completely unhelpful. For one thing, what counts as “big”? There are days when deciding what to have for dinner feels like a big decision—and that was true even before my husband died. For another, it’s really obnoxious, I think, to assume that everyone has the luxury to take a year off from making big decisions.

In trying to understand what counts as a “big” decision, I found the same general guidelines over and over on the internet: don’t get rid of anything, have a baby, get married or divorced, retire, quit your job, move, or make a major purchase. Given these parameters, I’m considering a “big” decision one that could haunt me if I mess it up. (I originally had as my working definition “a decision that could change the trajectory of my life,” but upon reflection and remembering how trajectories work, I realized that any decision could change a life trajectory.)

The logic behind the advice is that “big” decisions require one to be in a frame of mind that grief makes impossible. But here’s a reality check: we make “big” decisions all the time under terrible conditions. Here’s another reality check: grief doesn’t end after a year.

When someone is widowed, big decisions must be made. There’s no escaping it. What to do with my husband’s body, how to deal with intimidatingly large bills coming in related to his death, and what to do with his many belongings that filled the house and garage were decisions that could not be put off for a year. And what about widowed people who have to move because they can’t afford their rent or mortgage payments without their dead partner’s income, people who lose their jobs because grief renders them unable to continue working, widows who are pregnant when their partner dies, and other very common situations?

As with pretty much all one-size-fits-all advice, I find the advice to not make big decisions for a year to be complete bullshit.

I’ve made several decisions since Tom died that felt big, including  

  • giving away all sorts of things, including his tools, clothing, and motorized wheelchair, and quite a bit of furniture. I’ve also shredded most of his personal papers,
  • having major surgery,
  • hiring a landscaper to redo the back yard,
  • making several large-for-me charitable donations,
  • booking trips to Europe, South America, and Antarctica,
  • applying for a sabbatical that outlines a new research area for me, and
  • committing to a big, international, multiyear research project.

For the most part, making these decisions felt good. It gave me a sense of control and helped me imagine a future without Tom. Some of these decisions could have been put off; for example, I could have easily tabled travel plans for a year. But for me, making those travel plans was actually key in helping me feel like I was moving forward with my life. Having plans on my calendar gave me something to look forward to and forced me to confront head-on my fears about traveling to new places with a vision impairment and no partner to help me. Many people told me to hold off on making the travel plans, which are expensive and force me into the unknown.

But you know what? I hadn’t asked any of those people for their input. This commonly given advice, like so much advice, is typically unsolicited. I think people mindlessly repeat what they have heard without considering how helpful it is. I remind myself when I hear it that these people are either legitimately trying to be helpful or so uncomfortable with grief that they are just filling conversational space with a tepid platitude.

In contrast, a few people, when I asked for advice, told me something along the lines of “take all the time you need to make that decision” or “you don’t have to make that decision in a hurry.” These words honor the individual nature of decision-making.

As someone who has often struggled with decision paralysis, I’ve been happy to notice that grief makes priorities clear in a way that can actually help me make decisions. Perhaps the advice should be to make more big decisions while grieving.

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