3 Life Lessons I Learned when my Wife Died at 32

23 Feb
Daniel and Sarah - Grand Canyon

3 Life Lessons I Learned when my Wife Died at 32

With Valentine’s Day this past week, most people’s focus was on hearts and flowers as they considered ways to show their love.  It’s too bad that estate planning and life insurance — arguably the most appropriate gifts for a loved one when you really think about it — will not even remotely enter the mind of the vast majority of the people who need it most.  By the way, if you’re reading this post that means you if you haven’t already taken care of them.  

As previous readers know, last year my wife Sarah passed away after a long illness.  She was only 32.  We had been married for just under five years.  There’s nothing quite like the loss of a spouse at a young age to make you step back and think.  I’ve been doing a lot of journaling and reflecting over the past six months and here are some of the three most important things I’ve learned.  I hope that by sharing my story I can help encourage you to think about these things and take action if needed.  

Daniel and Sarah - Grand Canyon
Daniel and Sarah – Grand Canyon (2015)

Life is short and time with those you love is precious.

I’ve long been a proponent of using George Kinder’s three life planning questions to help people identify what is really important to them and I’ve reaped their benefits personally as well.  

  1. Question #1:  Imagine you are financially secure, that you have enough money to take care of your needs, now and in the future. The question is…how would you live your life? What would you do with your money? Would you change anything? Let yourself go. Don’t hold back on your dreams. Describe a life that is complete and richly yours.
  2. Question #2:  This time you visit your doctor who tells you that you have 5-10 years to live. The good part is that you won’t ever feel sick. The bad news is that you will have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do in the time you have remaining to live? Will it change your life and how will you do it? (Note that this question does not assume unlimited funds.)
  3. Question #3:  Finally, imagine your doctor shocks you with the news that you only have one day left to live. Concentrate on the feelings you have as you confront your very real mortality. Ask yourself:

    • What dreams will be left unfulfilled?
      What do I wish I had finished or had been?
      What do I wish I had done?
      What did I miss?

According to Kinder, the third question usually generates responses that follow five general themes:

  1. Family or relationships — 90% of the responses to the final question contain this topic.
  2. Authenticity or spirituality. Many responses involve leading a more meaningful life.
  3. Creativity. Surprisingly, a large number of respondents express a desire to do something creative: to write a science-fiction novel, or to play guitar like Eric Clapton.
  4. Giving back. Further down the list are themes about giving back to the community, about leaving a meaningful positive impact.
  5. A “sense of place.”  A fifth common theme (though nowhere near as prominent as the top three) is a desire to have some connection with place: a desire to be in nature, to live someplace different, or to help the environment.
  6. Kinder says that some people — the facts and figures people — look at the life-planning process and ask, “What does this have to do with money?” It has everything to do with money. When you understand what you want to do with your life, you can make financial choices that reflect your values.

 

As I’ve spoken before about my faith, these questions for Sarah and me were intensely spiritual as they helped us define what was truly most important to us in each aspect of our lives.  In matters of day-to-day life when it came to prioritizing our spending, we made sure to keep giving, experiences, and travel at the top of list when it came to discretionary spending (ie. what was left over after all the mandatory bills are paid) because those were the things most important to us.

Sarah and I loved to travel and explore new places so we prioritized that in our budget from the beginning of our marriage.  By choosing to live 100% consumer-debt free but also saving aggressively, we maintained a balance between the future and the present.  That allowed us to spend much time together doing things we loved.  I cherish those memories now.

Money is just a tool that we use to make our goals become real.  A common trend I see among many people in their own personal finances is the disconnect between what they value (sometimes with a goal, but now always if they’ve not really thought about them before) and what they spend their money on.  This is the recipe for frustration.  If you are experiencing this challenge, go back to the three questions and define what is most important to you to spend your money on.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “You won’t wish you had worked more on your deathbed,” but how often have you ever stopped to think about that in the context of are you really prioritizing spending quality time with the people you love and who mean the most to you?  What would they say if you asked them for their honest opinion?  

There is a tremendous contrast between urgent and important, yet how differently we often treat them by prioritizing the urgent over the important.  Take time to stop and reflect on how those ought to be different for you.  

 

Plan wisely for life’s end and the what-ifs along the way, especially by talking about them ahead of time.

My wife’s health declined over the course of 2016 before she experienced a health crisis event in March 2017.  We lived in hospitals across two states for almost 6 months before we found out there wasn’t much else the medical community could do.  In those final six weeks, we had so many special conversations that I will always treasure.  

We had already done all the appropriate estate planning at the beginning of our marriage, but most importantly, over the years Sarah and I had many conversations discussing the what-ifs of life and what our wishes would be if ever one of us was unable to make those decisions.  This especially came into play one time when in a stay in the ICU, Sarah came very close to being intubated and would be unable to speak for herself.  While fortunately that didn’t end up coming to pass, I already knew exactly what Sarah would want done because we had gone over that topic before.  That knowledge alone was a comfort in the back of my mind.  Please take the time to discuss the what-ifs of life with those you love in your life too.  It’s never the right time for that conversation until it isn’t.

 

Don’t wait to settle estate planning and get life insurance needs covered

The only difference between my wife and all of us was she had a much more definite timeline for when she would pass away.  In most of American culture, death is a difficult topic, yet ultimately it is something that happens to us all.  Living and planning in light of that fact can help all of us have a better perspective.

Of all the stresses we faced during that time, finances and estate planning weren’t one of them thankfully because we had already taken time back when we first got married to draw up wills, get appropriate life insurance, and cover all aspects of estate planning.  In the final weeks and months we were able to solely focus on what was most important — spending time with one another.

Estate planning and life insurance offer the opportunity to give a final gift of love to those left behind.  Don’t wait because none of us know what tomorrow may bring.

This can often be a difficult topic so here are some additional resources of articles that can help provide additional information for you and your family.  A small investment of your time and effort now will be of immeasurable value to your loved ones in the future.

 

13 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your hard-won lessons, Daniel. Your experience and words of wisdom are going to make a lot of people better off.

    Reply
    1. Thanks John, I’m grateful can turn my personal trial into a way to help others. It’s such a personal journey yet has applicability to all of us.

      Reply
  2. Daniel, thank you for sharing this with your readers and the greater community. Death is never an easy topic to discuss, especially when it involves loved ones. My wife and I have had similar conversations, but it has been some time since we have updated our will and reviewed our estate planning documents. There is no time like the present to do so.

    Reply
    1. Thanks for sharing Ryan. Sometimes we all need that extra push to take care of these necessary, even if hard, things.

      Reply
  3. Daniel, thank you for sharing this personal and important stuff. It is much appreciated and may even spur me to finalize a life insurance decision we’ve been putting off…

    Reply
    1. It’s helpful for me to write and share, but I’m just as glad to to hear that it can help inspire others to take action as well.

      Reply
  4. Daniel, this was so tough to read but thank you so much for sharing it. Planning for the what-ifs can be seen as morbid, but it’s vitally important to have. My parents and I (I’m an only child) had these conversations fairly regularly, because we’re just like that – a very practical family, and we were glad we had those conversations when last year my Dad suddenly had a heart attack and was in the ICU in an induced coma for 2 weeks. It’s always still a hard thing to say, but my Mom and I knew what he wanted had things progressed negatively.

    My husband and his family, on the other hand (a large family with a total of 6 adults who could give opinions) don’t talk about this at all. Ever. No one knows where the paperwork is (well, I assume his parents know, but we don’t know). No one knows their wishes. No one knows their burial plans (it’s just assumed open casket/open funeral I guess? Again, I have no frame of reference since it’s been over a decade since I attended an open casket funeral).

    I tried to bring it up and was shot down for being ‘morbid.’ But I know how helpful it was for me and my mother… you can’t force these conversations on people, unfortunately 🙁

    On the bright side, I do make my husband have these conversations, even if he’s not a fan, and I’m always showing him where the paperwork for us is kept. You truly never know when the worst can strike and it’s better to be prepared as best as possible.

    Reply
    1. Thanks for your kind words Melissa. This is often a topic and conversation that has to evolve over time to help people gradually get more comfortable with it. Money and death are still such taboo topics in America despite how we will face them one way or another. Every family has their own dynamic, but I hope through stories like mine I can help encourage people to talk about and plan in ways that are ultimately helpful to everyone.

      Reply
  5. Daniel, I’m so sorry for your loss. It is good to hear that you were able to “spend your values” and keep what’s important a priority. I think that’s a struggle for many of us, and it’s even more difficult to prepare for the what-ifs. Thanks for sharing your lessons.

    Reply
    1. Thank you Gary. I’m reminded of the quote “Yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”

      Reply
  6. This is a difficult read but an important one, Daniel. I am so glad you have wonderful memories based on a solid foundation and strong, happy relationship with Sarah. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I have a rare genetic disorder called Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS) – people with LFS have a high susceptibility to developing cancers of all kinds. While these kinds of conversations are important for everyone, they are absolutely critical in our community. I’ll be sharing this with our group. Thank you again.

    Reply
    1. Thank you Andi. I’m humbled and grateful to know that my experience can help spark conversations and challenge people to take those necessary steps for estate planning and conversations long before.

      Reply
  7. Daniel,
    I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for writing your story and sharing it. Wills, life insurance and family financial documentation are so important. I’m passionate about this too.

    Like your other reader, I’m an only child and my father had a heart attack. Sadly he passed after 30 days of ICU care including induced coma, multiple open heart surgeries, and a VAD machine. The hope was a heart transplant. Unfortunately, his body couldn’t handle all of that.

    I was 19. My mom just turned 50. She had no idea how pay the bills and was unsure what to do. Thankfully my father had a will, and good life insurance. It was a blessing.

    It was great meeting you at FinCon 18. What an amazing place. I promise to pass on your story to others.

    Thank you
    Holly

    Reply

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