Among many other and much more important things, the passing of my brother in law has been a sobering experience for me.
You see, I have long held the belief that I would be ‘business ready’ if my husband would unexpectedly die on me: I’m (somewhat) financially literate, we both are well-organized people, I personally know our lawyer and accountant, I have enough funds of my own to keep me going until things are settled, we both have registered wills…. I should be set, right?
But after supporting my sister through the first weeks of her widowhood I will just come out and say it outright: Nope, I’m not nearly as ready as I thought for the practicalities of life after loss. And I suspect that most of us are not ready either.
During her husband’s illness, my sister and he tried their best to get a grip on all practical matters but two very important things were not quite accounted for. First there were the surprisingly strong effects of the ‘chemo brain’ which engulfed him in a thick mind fog in which he was not able to fully explain things to her and resulted in a lot of distress and frustration for both. Even more important was the second: even amidst an illness with a horrifying prognosis, the parting moment came unexpectedly and shockingly soon.
There was no time to finalize some of the legal work that had been started. There was no time to discuss in detail what to do either with their business itself or with the hardware that was at its core. And then he was gone. No more questions could be asked. No more advice would be received.
My sister was suddenly on her own.
Throughout their marriage, my sister trusted her husband –rightfully so- to deal responsibly with all the money issues of their household and business. She allowed herself to become distanced from her money and its management. This might sound harsh. But it is not. I know this because I have done the exact same thing.
Matter of fact, this detachment holds true for most of my female friends, acquaintances, and peers regardless of whether they are married, in a committed partnership or even single.
Given the circumstances, the subject of money management has been extensively discussed in recent conversations with friends and family. The dialogue has varied greatly, ranging from ‘I do not even know our bank account numbers’ to ‘we lead completely independent financial lives’. Not a single one of the women we talked with was familiar with the inheritance laws of their state.
In my case, my husband has always enjoyed the management of money. He retired early and had all the time in the world to take care of these things while I was still struggling with a very demanding and stressful job. I was not willing to spend even a few of my precious weekend hours debating with him on the pros and cons of one mutual fund over another, or whether we should shift funds this year from the regular IRA to a Roth IRA. It was easy to rely on him.
Even now, when he has managed to corner me and ‘forced’ me to do the annual budget review, I have to admit that my eyes have glazed over after the first five minutes and I spent the time secretly planning what I would cook for dinner or where we would go on our next vacation while smiling politely and looking interested on the subject.
I am mystified as to why so many women –myself obviously included – have such a hard time dealing with financial matters. It is almost as if being interested in the subject would be considered a ‘bad’ trait; a character flaw that must remain hidden.
We are taught from infancy that we must nourish our family even if we starve ourselves in the process. That our homes must thrive even if we are wilting inside. And we seem to extend this ‘selflessness’ to our hard-earned money; we have separated our wellbeing from it.
The women in my life have been bred from birth to be Givers and fear that taking care of our money would secretly make us Takers.
I know high-earning women that are completely broke because they give away every cent they make. I know women that have serious money saved but are not multimillionaires because they refuse to get involved with the management of their money. And I also know women –more than a few- that have been left penniless after a nasty divorce or the death of a spouse because they never paid attention to their finances and allowed their partner take care of everything. We all do. But even knowing their horror stories, we still behave in the same way.
But now that I have sat at my sister’s side as we try to figure things out, I’m standing at full attention.
When faced with loss your brain is muddled with grief. You are vulnerable and at your weakest. You are physically exhausted. You are overwhelmed with even the thought of having to take a shower or return condolence phone calls. You are faced with an empty bed. You forget to take out the bins the night before trash collection. You realize that you need to sign up for Triple A because no one will come to your rescue if you have car troubles or lock yourself out of your house.
And suddenly the accountant calls and you have to figure out if the payment showing on your business statement was for the third or fourth quarter estimated taxes. Really? I mean…REALLY?
But giving up is just not an option. Adult beverages are poured and you dive head first into it.
Let me tell you that there are few things as terrifying as suddenly realizing that you do not have the latest password to the master application where all other passwords and login information are kept.
Your stomach sinks when you realize that every time you discussed business with your husband he had already logged into multiple websites and systems…and you have no clue as to how to get in because you never went through the actual motions of doing it yourself. This is when you start getting nauseous.
You know that everything you need is in the computer, perfectly organized in the appropriately named folders. But you just cannot get into it. Your digital life is suddenly not accessible. Do you chance it and keep entering passwords until it locks you out? Do you press the reset-password button? Oh wait… do we know the exact answers to the security questions?
My brother in law was a very organized man indeed and so far we have managed to figure everything out. But it has been stressful. Unnecessarily so. And I have to admit that the exact same thing would have happened to me.
And this was just a single example. A silly one. A first-world problem. More like a difficulty coming from privilege. But it seems to be that the old saying holds true: the devil is in the details. The big things have been reasonably easy, but left and right we keep getting stumped over little things that had seemed unimportant before.
My heart breaks for every woman that must face loss without the necessary tools; be them knowledge, confidence, time away from work or just the endless stamina required to soldier through bureaucracy. I cry for the women that do not have someone to either sit at their side as they figure things out together or that is able to knowledgeably walk them through the endless requirements.
But the point to all this rambling is that there is much to learn while we still have time. Things that we all can do to do to lessen the inevitable blow. We will all face loss at one time or another. From one source or another. Through accidents, illnesses, old age or just fate. We can only prepare ourselves by taking care of as many practicalities as we can foresee.
My personal takeaway from this process?
From now on I promise to give myself, and to my husband and daughter, the gift of my being involved. I will go through the motions. From beginning to end and top to bottom. I will ask the boring questions. I will take turns at being in charge. I will actively participate in our financial life. I will not be a bystander.
Loss is hard enough, overwhelming and consuming enough, painful enough to have to be scrambling for stupid passwords with a broken heart.