Opinion: Catastrophe struck when my husband was killed. Here’s what I learned about creating a ‘what if’ plan

Making big and often very hard decisions during a stressful and emotional situation adds more pain, suffering and confusion to what is already a terrible time

Published: May 24, 2019 at 11:07 a.m. ET By Chanel Reynolds

Sitting in the parking lot of a Marriott Express in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, swigging a drive-through drink the size my head and trying to map directions to my cousin’s memorial service was not the location I imagined trying to have “the talk” with my brother, and realizing (again!) that I was living one accident or illness away from financial catastrophe.

Turns out, most of us are.

An hour before, our parents had gotten a call. My dad’s brother was very ill. “It was time.” It was a four- or five-hour drive, and it was suggested that they hurry. They headed south to St. Louis, and we would go to the funeral home and share their condolences.

Four years after my husband was killed in an accident. I had mostly gotten my sh-t together (completed my will and power of attorney documents, created an emergency fund, got more life insurance, specified my end-of-life wishes, recorded important account and password information, etc.) and encouraged my parents, friends (and the whole world via my website Get Your Sh*t Together) to make it easier on everyone after they die, too.

But I hadn’t really thought through what would happen before my parents died. If one (or both) got seriously ill, needed more help at home or couldn’t live at home anymore? Who would they live with? How would my brother and I step in?

We didn’t have a plan. And I’d already learned the hard way that making big and often very hard decisions during a stressful and emotional situation—while also scrambling to figure out what is going on — adds more pain, suffering and confusion to what is already a terrible or even traumatic time.

However, it’s pretty easy to change that right now.

And after my husband spent a week in the emergency room and intensive care, before I had to remove him from life support, I know how dramatically having a few basic things completed in advance can make a very impossibly hard and painful time a little bit softer. Having had some plans in place (like some life insurance and a strong support community) was lifesaving for me.

Not knowing the password to my late husband’s phone to reach some of his family members? No emergency savings? Let’s just say there was a permanent red spot on my forehead after the hundreds of times I slapped myself.

I didn’t have answers to these “what-if” scenarios when I really, really needed them.

Start now. Taking five minutes to write down a few essential passwords and updating your beneficiaries (online, it’s super easy!) can make a huge, huge difference. Then, do another five minutes the next day, or following week.

Worry less about what worries you. Our “what if” was: What happens if our parents become very ill or if (OK, not if, but when) one of them dies.

Yours? It could be one or many of these, very typical scenarios: What if you lose your job or are laid off? A family member becomes seriously ill? You get a serious diagnosis? A bad accident comes out of nowhere?

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You are probably quite good at playing a version of the what-if game already. It goes something like this: late-night worry about something bad happening followed by a merry-go-round of fears about what else would happen if that bad thing happened. Frequently, we run a catastrophe loop about events not in our direct control (global economic collapse, rising sea levels, poverty) or even lose sleep (yep, my hand is raised) about ones that will probably never happen (zombie apocalypse, aliens take over).

When it comes to situations that might actually happen, it is tempting to simply hope for the best. However, hoping for the best is not a plan. You know this.

So what happens if something happens? Let’s find out.

• First: Take a full, deep breath.

• Remember: We’re not looking for perfect, just more better and less screwed than you may be right now.

• The goal: How much “optional suffering” can you remove from an otherwise awful situation? For example, what might you need or want?

What if ___________________________ happened?

1. Well, first
I would (want/need): first 24-48 hours

2. Next, I could: short-term plan

3. After a while, I would have to: long-term plan

4. Or, if necessary (a backup to the backup plan), I might: the uh-oh plan

Ask yourself: Be curious, get creative:

• Which things (big or small) might be barriers or blockers to any of those plans to go as smoothly as possible? (Make an extra house key for the neighbor? Add or update your emergency contacts?)

• What are the things you can easily change?

• Where are the weak or vulnerable spots and what could you do to change that? (Start an emergency fund? Organize child-care backup? Get life or disability insurance?)

• Which, if any, elements of ambiguity and uncertainty are you able to change? (Write down end-of-life wishes? Decide and document who makes medical and end-of-life decisions for you? Create/update your will? Make that phone call?)


Our plan for mom and dad? While we may not have everything covered and things could change, what we do know now will make a huge difference. Everyone is more relieved now and less anxious about the future.

• My brother is the medical power of attorney given he is closest (and likely more rational) than I am, and he (and his wife, who is an attorney) will handle the insurance and bills.

• I have an emergency fund set aside just for a family emergency so I can get there (and stay for a few weeks) and keep a credit card (low or no balance) to use for last-minute plane tickets. I also have a temporary guardian documented so my son can stay home and in school if that is better for him.

Beyond that? As the air-conditioning raged against the summer heat and humidity, my brother stopped my spiraling-what-if-OK-not-if-but-when-something-happens-to-mom-or-dad by setting down his jumbo-sized soda with, “Yeah, I suppose we really should talk about it.”

Oh, OK. Wow, I thought. That was way easier than I thought it would be.

He put the car into reverse, headed out of the parking lot toward our cousin’s wake, and turned to me and said, “Well, of course they’d come live with me.”

And now we have a better plan.

Thank you MarketWatch