“There are a few simple things I wish I had taken care of before my life went sideways – like a will, life insurance, and some details jotted down.”
On July 17, 2009, my husband José Hernando was hit by a van while riding his bike down a pretty road near the lake, a few miles from our house. One of the stunning and glorious summer days in Seattle that make living through all the winter rain and gray feel worth it. He was set on going for a quick training ride before his last bike race of the season. I wanted him to go to a dinner party with me and our 5-year old instead.
Our last moment together, he was being goofy and adorable, wanting me to kiss him before he left. I refused, twice. We had been bickering about the usual two-working-parents-young-child-no-time type issue. He tried one last time and I couldn’t help smile at him and kiss him back.
My last words to him were, “Ok, I’ll kiss you, but I’m still mad at you.”
Twenty minutes later it was all over. The accident was really, really bad. It decimated his upper spine and caused an immediate traumatic cardiac arrest. Technically, he died on the scene.
But somehow, José made it to the hospital with the barest of a pulse. Everyone was shocked. The paramedics were so well trained, the hospital so close, the ER docs so amazing, José was in such incredible physical shape. They were able to keep just enough of him alive. And yet, after a time-suspending week in the ER, surgery, the ICU; every possible test told us the same story. He was never coming back. So I made the decision I was most certain he would want. I approved removing medical support and, quickly, he was gone.
I stayed with him a few hours, took all the tape and tubes off and washed his body. Family came into the room to brush his forehead or touch his hand. I had to pick a funeral home. Then, there was nothing else to do but go home and tell our son his dad was dead. At some point I’d try figure out what, and how, I was going to live the rest of my life. Do you just wake up the next day and put on pants and go the store like a regular human? I had no idea. Could I afford the thehouse? What is probate? How much insurance did we have? What the password to his phone? Again, no idea.
But, there was another thought banging around in my head. It landed there the first day in the ICU when I turned to my friend and said, “Oh my god, I don’t have my shit together at all. And if this is happening to us, what about everyone else in the hospital? And everywhere? We’re all so much more vulnerable than we ever imagined.”
If I could make it out the other end of this alive – I didn’t want anyone else to have to.
So, out of scribbles in notebooks, hours and hours making phone calls and tracking stuff down I learned the hard way about all the things I could have done ‘before’ that would have helped the ‘after’ suck a little less. I had an unbelievable amount of positive support and help from friends. Then, there were also the numerous and wildly messy late nights, very dark thoughts, and more than a handful of moments too unbearable to speak aloud. It was very hard and seemed to take forever, but after a few years I (mostly) got my shit together.
And, that moment in the hospital stayed with me, I couldn’t shake it and knew I wanted to help anyone and everyone avoid the ‘optional’ suffering that comes along with the crappy, sad, and gut-wrenching suffering we cannot. Like death, or diagnosis, or disaster, etc.
A few years after José died, most days I felt almost like myself again so I finally launched a website called Get Your Shit Together (getyourshittogether.org). It wasn’t fancy, but it was true and honest and broke down all the overwhelming stuff into an easy list of all the things I wish I would have done. It worked.
In fact, it really worked. I launched the site on Monday night, and in 24 hours thousands of folks were hitting the site.
And by Friday, it was featured in Ron Lieber’s New York Times ‘Your Money’ Column. Apparently, a lot people read it.
I was beside-myself-excited the message was reaching so many people and was really helping.
The press was very kind to generously share the site.
And then, thousands of break-your-heart-open-all-over-the-floor notes from all over the world started pouring into my inbox.
So, three years after José died, I found myself talking about the terrible details of his death over, and over, and over again.
And pretty quickly, it made me feel like crawling under my bed with a bottle of whatever and a take a ten-day nap.
I was feeling the loss all over again.
“This is going to be short as I am now sitting in a hospital room with my husband who suffered a stroke after hitting his head. This lead to Brain Surgery on Saturday. I am in the same boat. My husband was financially responsible for mortgages, rent, car payments, etc… I was laid off 3 months ago. I have no passwords, documents, etc… We don’t know what the future brings us.”
It could have dawned on me more quickly, however, that in my hopes to help people take care of this stuff Before – I was finding a whole lot of people, like myself, who found themselves in a world of hurt After.
And when I had enough time between his death and the beginning of the rest of my life I could see it isn’t just about my story – it is about all of our stories.
Having read your story I know I’m not crazy, just stressed temporarily out of my mind. I’ll be sharing your website with anyone who will listen because I would not wish this experience on anyone. I’ll be collecting passwords and using your checklists so that I make things easier for my husband, daughter and myself.
We all have one, or will. And that’s why Jessica, Phil and I (plus a bad-ass strategic advisor who brought us together) created GYST.com. So, now what? We want to help as many people as possible get the paperwork done as easily as possible. I hope you check it out!
So, the website has become and business and the rest of my story has just begun.