Seminar Offers Emotional and Practical Guidance for Surviving Spouses

Panelists at the IACAN seminar included Swapan Dhairyawan (left) Kumari Susarla, Andrew Hardwick and Ranvir “Biki” Mohindra. Other speakers at the seminar were Bhaskar Rao and Rahat Sultana Khalil.

Panelists at the IACAN seminar included Swapan Dhairyawan (left) Kumari Susarla, Andrew Hardwick and Ranvir “Biki” Mohindra. Other speakers at the seminar were Bhaskar Rao and Rahat Sultana Khalil.

By Pramod Kulkarni

HOUSTON: As the first-generation South Asian immigrants gain senior status, one of the major challenges facing them is the loss of a spouse The emotional and practical aspects of life as a widower were the focus of a seminar organized by the Indo-American Cancer Network (IACAN) on Sunday, October 29 at India House.

IACAN received support for the seminar from the Indo-American Chamber of Greater Houston (IACCGH) and Share Our Secrets (SOS), a mentoring organization for young professionals as well as seniors.

The seminar achieved a tremendous community response with more than 150 seniors in attendance. India House staff was kept busy adding more and more chairs to accommodate an overflow gathering.

The emcee for the seminar was Rathna Kumar, Directors of the Anjali School for Performing Arts, who herself had suffered the tragic loss of her husband, Anil, about two years ago. In her introduction, Kumar thanked IACAN for organizing such an important seminar and expressed her wish that such an event could have helped her when she was first dealing with these issues.

The first two speakers revealed the emotional aspects of losing a spouse. Bhaskar Rao, a professional engineer, lost his wife, Shashi, in November 2012. “Losing a spouse is inevitable,” Rao began. “Living alone afterwards did not help. I was dysfunctional at work and at home. I started seeing a psychological therapist. The therapist had a different focus and different culture in mind. He wanted me to let go of Shashi and find a new life and move on. Those things did not sit well with me. After six months, I stopped seeing the therapist.”

Bhaskar Rao said he found solace in mentoring teenagers and young students.

Bhaskar Rao said he found solace in mentoring teenagers and young students.

“What set me on the road to recovery was mentoring teenagers and younger students. It helps to have a support group to overcome the initial process of grieving.”

Rao has started an educational foundation in his wife’s name to help mentor students in Houston as well as in the states of Telangana and Jharkhand in India.

The second speaker was Rahat Sultana Khalil, who retired after working for a financial institution and founded an engineering company with her husband. A resident of Houston for the last 47 years, Ms. Khalil lost her husband more than 20 years ago,
“Despite the passage of 20 years, the sense of loss remains,” Khalil explained. “I knew my husband since I was 15 years old. He was my soul mate. His passing was very sudden.

However, since we owned an engineering company, my presence was needed at the office the very next day. I had to pick up the pieces and did not have the time to grieve. The support of my staff was very important to me. We were like family. I also had the support of my children and my dear friends. We were a group of four couples, who did everything together.”

“The single status makes a difference in a large gathering of couples. It becomes awkward. One has to consciously find interest in new things and new doors, which I did. For me, driving long distances on my own was my therapy. Also, recalling good memories is honoring and celebrating your life together. It is my dear friends and an optimistic outlook to life that keeps me going.”

Rahat Sultana Khalil said it was important to step out of your comfort zone and open new doors.

Rahat Sultana Khalil said it was important to step out of your comfort zone and open new doors.

The third speaker was Kumari Susarla, the president of IACAN. A medical technologist by profession, Ms. Susarla lost her husband two years ago. In her remarks, Susarla quoted a Harvard study, which found that widows outnumber widowers by a ratio of 3:1.
“Regardless of gender, we Indians rarely talk about death. It is not a pleasant subject,” Susarla said. “If we can prepare for the loss of a spouse, we can minimize the stress on our families.”

Susarla then explained the practical aspects of dealing with the death of a spouse. For Hindus, it is important to keep handy the contact information of a funeral home that provides cremation services.

“I had attended a funeral service where the family did not realize that the priest did not bring with him the supplies needed for performing the rituals at a funeral,” said Susarla.
Then there is the paperwork after death. “We can obtain the certified death certificate copies from the funeral home. It is important to get at least 10 to 15 certified copies because many financial institutions and insurance companies require these original certificates.”

Subsequently, the employer has to be contacted to ascertain the full extent of accrued benefits. The Indian consulate has information about how to transport a body to India at a cost of about $10,000.”

Susarla said if the spouse was a social security recipient, the check deposits end immediately. “You have to make sure to keep a sufficient balance. There will be other bills to pay. Just because you’re having a crisis, the rest of the world will continue to demand payment for services rendered. My husband used to prepare the budgets and send them to me my email. I was so thankful to him for preparing such a budget.”

“It is important to keep handy all the social security numbers, insurance contracts, birth and marriage certificates, titles of cars and homes, bank account numbers, etc.,” explained Susarla.

Rathna Kumar agreed with Susarla’s comments about learning how to live alone. “I did not know you have to put air in your car tires. I did not use to pay a single bill. You learn, but you learn the hard way,” she said.

The next speaker was Andrew Hardwick, public affairs specialist for the Social Security Administration in Houston.

“Social Security provides benefits for widows and widowers,” said Hardwick. “There are benefits also if there are children below the age of 16. If you’re under full retirement age, the social security benefits are reduced.”

Hardwick asked people sign up on the “My Social Security Account” to receive up-to-date information on their social security accounts. After the death of a spouse, it is necessary to furnish a copy of the death certificate and proof of marriage to receive benefits, he said.

CPA Swapan Dhairyawan, representing the IACCGH, presented a financial checklist for the surviving spouse. “During the early days of grieving, it is important not to put your house up for sale, or give away money to your children or charity. Do not allow a salesperson to talk to you about buying financial products. There are ambulance chasers,” cautioned Dhairyawan.

SOS founder, and expert in NRI financial matters, Biki Mohindra also stressed financial literacy for the surviving spouse. He counseled, “Simplify your financial assets by consolidating accounts, settle your affairs in India because your children won’t be able to deal with those assets,” Mohindra said. “Make sure your spouse and children know about your financial affairs. Secondly, everyone needs a will, if you don’t want the State to decide how your assets should be distributed. The cost of not having a will is ten to hundred times the cost of paying for a will.”

“You must file for probate within the time deadline. It is also important to liquidate your hard assets to generate sufficient cash flow. Prepare for medical expenses to add up,” he said.

Mohindra closed his presentation by stating that he will be talking to India House and other organizations about having a continuing series of financial literacy classes for seniors.

The seminar concluded with a Q&A session emceed by IACAN’s Arlene Thomas.

For access to Swapan Dhairyawan’s checklist and Biki Mohindra’s presentation, visit