Family time has always been important to me. During the COVID-19 outbreak, while everything has been shut down, I’ve had a chance to rediscover the impact of family time. As the world around us changed by the minute, I huddled with my family nearly every night, eating dinner, playing games and watching movies, something we had not done in years. One night, as I looked around the table at the people I love the most, it struck me. I am so lucky. 

It might sound strange to hear me say “I’m lucky” in the middle of a pandemic. But when I was 37, an unexpected tragedy struck our home, something that forever changed my life. My husband and the father of my children suddenly passed away. If you or someone you care about is distressed by the uncertainties that life throws at us, I’d like to share seven lessons I learned from losing a husband, having my life turned upside down and then rebuilding the incredible life I have today. 

 

THINGS WERE GOING SO WELL…

I’ve always been a planner. I don’t believe we should just wait for life to happen. Instead, we should make it happen by following a great plan. This approach was working almost exactly the way I wanted for the first half of my life. I guess you could say I was living the American Dream.

I wanted it all: career success, a great family, a loving husband, financial security and health. I had it all. For more than a decade, I had worked very hard at a major financial institution. By all accounts, I was a rising star. As a woman, working in an industry dominated by men, I was excelling, achieving the position of Senior Vice President at a young age. I had earned the respect of my colleagues.

I had two beautiful and healthy children who were the center of our world. We owned a lovely home and were even preparing for the arrival of our third child. We were building our financial nest egg and the future looked bright. There was no indication whatsoever that our world was about to change forever. And then it happened. Without notice.

My husband passed away from a heart attack. He was young and by all accounts healthy. I still struggle to talk about this and to describe what it felt like in those first few weeks. I was in complete shock. My American Dream had ended, it seemed. 
 

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"I'm really passionate about building an integrated plan for my clients. Taxes, retirement, investments, estate planning and so much more. I care about getting the details right."

COPING WITH LOSS

I’ll admit that I’m not a particularly patient person. I like to take action to make things happen. After my husband passed, there was no action plan, no blueprint to follow. All of the structure of my life went out the window. It seemed like I was making it up every day rather than following a playbook. It felt like I was treading water while searching for some sort of anchor.

We had an up-to-date estate plan and life insurance, so that took care of estate and financial concerns. But I still had to deal with funeral arrangements, caring for two children and the everyday effects of pregnancy. And then there was the heavy burden of grief. During this time, there was really no plan to follow. Many days it felt like I was simply wandering. 

I have said that my parents gave me two great gifts: a college education and my faith. During this time, my faith was sorely tested. Friends, family and a faith community really helped me. There were a lot of people who spent time with me, sometimes for hours, and who supported me while I was grieving. I am grateful to them to this very day. They helped me so much. 

My first concern was for my children and my unborn son. So I did what I felt was right. I asked for a demotion at work so I could spend more time with my children and focus on them. For the next several years, my world got really small. My focus was just on daily life, like diapers, food, school, soccer practice and trying to establish some sort of normalcy in a situation that did not feel at all normal. I still worked, but work was secondary to family. 

Not long after my husband passed, an interesting but risky opportunity came my way. Bill Thonn had left the company where we both had worked together. He knew my situation and my commitment to my family. He reached out to me to see if I would be interested in joining Whitnell. I was intrigued but concerned. 

This might have been the biggest risk I’ve ever taken in life. I was a respected professional in a great company who had shown me much grace and support through my time of loss. I knew my career path would return to its upward trajectory within a few years. Walking away from that opportunity, especially given everything else I was dealing with, felt really risky. 

All these years later, I’m glad I took the leap. Whitnell has allowed to work with world-class colleagues and build a fantastic team. I’ve connected deeply with some of the best families in the world, clients I care about a lot, who know my story. The trust and admiration I share with my clients may be the best part of my job. 

 

MY SEVEN LESSONS LEARNED

I have no answers for why bad things happen to good people. I wish I did, but I don’t. All I know is that bad things do happen, and sometimes at the worst possible time. The COVID-19 outbreak is a reminder to us all that we cannot predict the future. But this doesn’t mean we should fly by the seat of our pants, just because we can’t predict what will happen. 

Plans matter all the time. But they matter even more when things go wrong. In my experience, people who have a plan and stick to it over time—even during traumatic events—are far more likely to achieve their goals than those who do not have a plan. I am so glad I had a plan before my husband passed away. I don’t regret a single minute I spent building our plan and following it. 

During a major event, people take stock. I know I certainly did, for months on end after my husband passed. Some of what people tend to reflect on in these moments has to do with their wealth, but most of the time, they reflect on their life. If there is one thing becoming a widow at 37 taught me, it’s that there are no guarantees in life. That was probably the biggest lesson. Here are seven more:

  1. Flexibility matters
  2. Hard times create resilient people
  3. Life is short
  4. The plan matters
  5. Life goes on
  6. Hope carries the day 
  7. Perseverance pays off

 

FLEXIBILITY MATTERS

A great financial plan is based on assumptions, models and trajectories. But unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. Life can be completely interrupted, our models and assumptions obliterated in a split second. That was my reality and it is the reality of many clients I’ve served. These “interruptions” teach us the importance of flexibility. 

Before my husband passed away, I was a good planner. Now I’m a great planner because I know how much the plan matters. I understand, first-hand, how hard we lean on the results a great plan can produce when things go wrong. I can’t imagine how I would have coped if our life insurance and estate plan were not up to date. That would have made my burden so much heavier.

The plans I build for clients today still operate on assumptions and models. But I also encourage my clients to be prepared to pivot when necessary. We can’t be rigid because we have to adapt to the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves. This is what I’ve learned: you can’t plan for every possible scenario, especially those you can’t see coming. This is why I believe it’s important to be flexible. 

 

HARD TIMES CREATE RESILIENT PEOPLE

Through this experience, I transformed from being an optimist to being a realist. While I’m still a hopeful and generally positive person, I recognize that things can go very wrong. But even when this happens, there can still be blessings. The most resilient people I know, those who bounce back, find the silver lining in almost any situation.

For instance, I learned a lot about my children by spending so much time with them. I now recognize their innate strengths and areas where they struggle. I’m not sure I would ever have come to know my children the way I do now had this tragedy not befallen us. I’m definitely now a stronger and more resilient person for having gone through this experience. I also have a greater appreciation for the little things. 

 

LIFE IS SHORT

I used to get caught up in all the noise: career goals, money, watching the latest trends to stay on top of things. These days, my life is much quieter. Now I focus on what’s important in life. It’s the simple things like family meals, playing games, listening to music and just enjoying each other’s company. Now I ask myself, what do we actually need in life?

When things are going well, it’s easy to get so busy that we forget to actually live. There is a saying: life is what happens on the way to achieving our goals. If we make our career and financial goals our sole focus in life, we run the risk of missing out on what really matters. Life is short, something I know from experience. If we don’t appreciate and treasure the little moments in life, they might pass us by without even being noticed. That would be truly tragic. 

 

THE PLAN MATTERS

My financial plan, before my husband passed away, was a good one. We had the requisite life insurance and estate plan and they were up to date. But we also had an emergency fund and good advisors. This helped me tremendously during this difficult time. 

This is one of the reasons I am so passionate about ensuring that my clients have up-to-date documentation in all areas of their financial plan. It is so easy for details to fall through the cracks. A good plan anticipates good things happening down the road, because you’ve practiced good financial discipline. But it also prepares for, and creates a bulwark against, bad things happening. Yet the only way to experience the full protection of the plan is to have everything up to date. 

 

LIFE GOES ON

When I was a teenager, John Cougar Mellencamp, a fellow Indianan, released the song “Jack and Diane.” I could not have known as a teenager how true those lyrics would be for me—that life goes on. But the life that I thought I would be living, the trajectory that I had in mind as a young person, did not come true. That was not in the cards for me. 

And yet … life does go on, and it most certainly can be sweet. During a time of crisis, it can be hard to envision ever being happy again. I know this from my experiences. There were many times, as I was grieving, that I could not imagine being a joy-filled family again. But it’s happened anyhow. Mellencamp was right—life does go on. 

 

HOPE CARRIES THE DAY

Hope may be our most precious national and personal treasure. Life gives all of us lemons … and hope turns them into lemonade. Hope makes people resilient and strong, even in the face of adversity. Hope gives us the courage and determination to take simple, common-sense steps, even when it might feel as if the sky is falling. Hope, for me, is simply the belief that tomorrow can be better

After my husband passed away, I had little hope, for quite some time actually. I was grieving while adjusting to my new normal. But through it all, I kept hoping and believing that if I took the right steps and avoided the wrong ones, it would pay off in the long run. 

Hope helps us believe in things we cannot see, to envision a better life at some point in the future. Hope gives us the courage to keep trying, even when things are not going according to plan, or when the plan seems destroyed. Hope is essential. 

 

PERSEVERANCE PAYS OFF

Today, I am incredibly blessed. I married a wonderful man a while back and together we have blended our families and lives into something completely new—a life I could not have imagined just 16 years ago. I am living proof that perseverance pays off in the end. My original plan ended, but this new plan is pretty great, I have to admit. 

Day after day, I just kept pushing and working toward my goals. I wanted my children to be as healthy as possible physically, emotionally and spiritually. I invested in them every day by being involved in their lives. I suppose I tried to be, at some level, both mom and dad. 

I also took a big risk in my career. I worked my way back, day after day, by serving my clients well and applying my lessons learned to my clients. I am so ardent and dogged about getting the details right for them because I know how important the plan is for them

 

WHO IS YOUR PARTNER?

In today’s world, it seems we get so little quiet, so little time to really reflect on and identify what is important to us. We need quiet to re-center ourselves and remember what matters. As a society, we drive ourselves to mental exhaustion. 

If there is one benefit of the COVID-19 crisis, it is the time we’ve given to be alone with our families. Since the COVID-19 crisis, many people have been taking stock, thinking about what really matters to them in life and how they plan to protect it. I hope my story helps you think about what you value and how important the plan is for protecting the ones you love. 

 

© 2020 Whitnell & Co.  The information contained in this article is provided for informational purposes only.