Due to events in my own life, I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about how my children would cope if I were to pass away suddenly. It's an incredibly difficult thing to think about but I know no better person than my friend Emily to tackle this tough subject.
Recently, I posted a rant on Facebook. I had read several sugary-sweet posts in the mom-to-baby vein wherein the parent promised to be there for the child through everything from the first day of school to the bad high school haircut. These posts, and presumably the parents who write them, are idealistic bordering on delusional.
It is a hard reality that many parents will not be there for their children—something health-related or financial could happen to jeopardize that storybook ending.
Approximately 1 in 20 children under age 15 will lose one or both parents. As many as 1 in 7 will lose a parent before age 20. Some websites had the stats even higher. Furthermore, these statistics do not account for dealing with an accident or disease not resulting in death.
I don’t need statistics to tell me how devastating the loss of parents is.
I am an orphan and an only child. My father died of cancer when I was 12 (he was 43). My mother died of cancer when I was 27 (she was 57). Here is the point in the conversation where you will ask, “Oh my goodness, have you gotten yourself checked? Do you make sure to eat healthy and exercise? Do you have other family close by?”
Stop that. Re-frame this conversation right now.
Start asking me the questions like, “How did your parents prepare you to make it all on your own?” “How did your single mom send you to a private college and a top-fifteen law school with minimal debt?” “How do you raise two kids, work, and keep a happy house and a happy husband with no family in a seventy-five mile radius?”
My mom did it and I continue to do it by being practical.
Here is my advice for how to prepare your children the way my parents prepared me.
Have your house in order. Make a will; make provisions for who will care for your children. This is a no-brainer and should be mandatory before leaving the hospital with a newborn. Make sure everyone knows about it and understands the plan. Give the future custodian a copy of the will and make sure they understand your finances or are known to your financial planner and/or accountant.
Have your finances in order. Do not under any circumstances think that you are making your family’s life better by making yourself house-poor. The money saved on an extra bedroom/media room/keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ room might mean the difference in your child’s educational future. If your children lose a parent and then lose their house you have planned incredibly poorly.
Furthermore, make sure all of your financial instruments reflect the correct beneficiaries. Make sure that the 401(k) you had before you married and had babies doesn’t still pass to your sister. Make sure that your partner knows about all of your assets/accounts. If you try to split up your finances (I have no clue how folks do this), make a list of what bills are paid by each account and their due dates, because, depending on how your accounts are set up, the surviving person may not be able to access the account of the deceased individual. It took months before I could withdraw the money from my mother’s account when she died. I had to pay her house payment, car payment and other bills directly from my own pocket until the estate was settled. Luckily, I had money set aside for an emergency. Your house payment doesn’t wait for you to get your life back together after a loss.
Have your memories in order. Want to make sure that your children remember you— then make traditions. Do the same activities each year. Make a big deal about them and make sure that your partner knows how to re-create these memories after you are gone. Try new things too, but the smallest thing can call back a memory of a parent, something as small as the same beach towel, or the same cucumber water on a hike. They can grab those things and feel like you are there. Take lots of pictures, and make sure you are in them. I have precious few pictures of my mom and me together and even less of me with my dad. Participate in family story-telling. My husband is a master at this part. As you are driving just start a conversation, “Hey do you remember...” It’s so fantastic to hear your children’s voices in the re-telling.
Have your lessons in order. Want to pass along life lessons, family history, or just general advice to your kids, write them down. Your kids will be starving for any piece of you after you are gone and seeing your handwritten words may make all the difference. I have my mom’s recipes and also her phone book. I also have the book that she took notes in while planning my wedding. I’m pretty sure that I’d rather have that book and her words than her jewelry.
Have yourself in order. This is by far the most important tip. You need to lead by example. When confronted by an obstacle, never let your children see you wringing your hands, worrying, or confused. Do that on your own time. When my father died my mom exuded supreme confidence. I’m not saying that she didn’t cry, you can certainly show emotion in front of your kids, but you cannot show indecision. Show them how you make a plan and how you execute it. Talk to your kids about problems and the process that you use to solve them. As I grew up my mom would show me how she handled her finances and the importance of saving for the future She showed me that you can have what you want if you plan. If you teach your children the confidence that comes with problem-solving, they can conquer anything.
Emily is a 2004 graduate of Vanderbilt University Law School and a Prosecutor in Louisville, Kentucky. She is also a wife and mother am of two boys, John, 5 years and Carter, 10 months.