There have been a fair few think-pieces and magazine features about how the mental load of household admin often falls disproportionately on women. We are (generally) the ones who not only book the appointments but constantly keep a complicated calendar in our heads of when the next GP, dentist, haircut appointment needs to be. We keep an eye on when new clothes are needed, when the toothbrushes need replacing, and when the birthday present for your mother in law needs to be ordered so it can arrive, be wrapped and still get to her in time without handing over your life’s savings to Hermes in return for next day delivery.
It seems, however, that a lot of us are still putting off thinking about a rather large area of life admin, which is actually quite important, and which I have a rather unique insight into. Ok, so technically you could call it death admin. Or I could, anyway. While looking after your children’s teeth, trouser hems, and relationship with their grandparents are all very important; most of us shy away from thinking about what would happen to our family if we died.
If you’re new then, first of all, “Hi, welcome! Pull up a chair and get stuck into the archive!”.
A quick intro: I was widowed in 2014 when my 32-year-old super-healthy husband was diagnosed with and died from stomach cancer. I spent the next couple of years bringing up our 2-year-old son and then met my current husband. We’ve been navigating the world of death, blended families, remarriage, new babies, and now a tweenager ever since. This blog is where I like to explore the intricacies, complications, and frustrations of our unique situation.
If you know me, and you’ve been here a while, then you’ll know I don’t shy away from talking about tricky subjects. Hell, we’ve discussed things like how to introduce your new boyfriend to your late husband’s parents, getting pregnant, post-partum bodies, my sex life, my laundry pile, you name it I’ll chat about it.
Every 22 minutes in the UK a parent of a child under 18 dies. (See, I told you we talk about the tough stuff here)
That stat was from 2015, so imagine what the last year and a half has done to the figures.
There are many ways that children are affected by losing a parent. I’ve written quite a lot about how Mark’s death has affected Ethan. But the one thing we hardly talk about is probably the one that makes the most practical difference: money.
I’ve been chatting with a new friend of mine who is a financial advisor. Annika is passionate about helping women get a grasp on their finances and their future, as women tend to think less about pensions and life insurance and all that jazz. After our conversation, I realized that I haven’t talked about money very much in the context of becoming a widow. It’s not an area that I’m very comfortable in. In fact, it makes me want to run away and hide. But that should drive home for you how important I think it is that we all take the initiative, instead of assuming that everything is going to be fine.
Usually, a couple will make a joint decision to have a baby. They will plan to raise that baby together and to take joint financial responsibility for the child until it is 18 (and let’s face it, probably a lot longer with rent prices these days!).
I know that the reality is not as simple as this. I am not dumping on single parents, people who have unplanned babies, or anyone with experiences that are different from the traditional route. I am just pointing out that people make life decisions, and employment decisions, and schooling decisions, based on the assumption that the adults who birthed the baby will be there for the whole ride. When things unexpectedly change you are left not only dealing with the loss of your life partner and your children’s other parent but also probably with half (or more) of your income.
When Mark was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer in the August of 2014 I definitely wasn’t thinking about mortgage payments. I was thinking about how we were going to get him through this, as well as the minutiae of how I was going to balance childcare with chemo appointments, whether I should wash the rug in the kitchen that he’d been sick on or just throw it away, how to find a safe space in the kitchen to store all the meds, who was coming to stay when and whether I had enough time to wash the sheets, and whether I was going to have to sell a kidney to pay for all-day hospital parking.
Thankfully, my super-organised and practical husband had taken out life insurance when we got our mortgage and one of the first things he did after his diagnosis was to talk to his employers about their death in service benefit. This meant that, even though I had only gone back to work part-time after Ethan was born, I didn’t have to think about whether I could meet the mortgage payments on my own. I had that bit of breathing space while I worked out what our life was going to look like now. And I didn’t have to think about uprooting Ethan from the only home he’d ever known so soon after his Daddy had disappeared. Not everyone is this lucky.
Without life insurance, I would have had to sell our home, as there was no way I would have been able to find a job that paid well enough to cover the mortgage, living costs and full-time childcare. Without life insurance, I wouldn’t have been able to take the time I needed right after Mark’s death to be the stable presence in Ethan’s life. So I’m constantly telling people that they need some. The younger you are when you take it out, the cheaper it is, and the peace of mind it can give you is invaluable. Also, although your mortgage is probably your biggest expense, life insurance can be put in place to cover all sorts of things we don’t necessarily think about: food, household bills, children’s clubs and even the endless clothes purchases that I mentioned earlier.
But, even super-organized and practical people have blind spots. Mark and I didn’t have a will. It was one of those things that we always said we should sort out, but that we never got to. In hindsight, I don’t think this was busyness or forgetfulness, I think it was a willful (pardon the unintentional pun) refusal to consider the topic. I think we both worried that sitting down and signing such a document would be tempting fate. Well, you know what, fate doesn’t care about what you think, and neither does cancer, Covid, heart attacks, or that car coming far too fast around the corner on your commute. Death happens, and you don’t get to decide when.
So that was how I found myself sitting on the windowsill of a hospital room watching a solicitor and her very uncomfortable intern asking all the relevant questions while my dying husband lay in bed with pain written all over his face. We signed our will 24 hours before he died, although we didn’t know it was going to be quite that soon. We waited until the doctor had told us, kindly, calmly but clearly that there was nothing else they could do other than move Mark to a hospice to make him more comfortable. We waited until there was absolutely no hope left before we phoned the solicitor and made the decisions we needed to. And do you know what? It was more unnecessary pain at a ridiculously painful time. We didn’t need to wait that long, and we should have talked about guardianship, finances, and wishes a long time ago, in a less stressful situation, probably over a glass of wine. We could have chuckled over how everyone would react if we’d decided to leave our worldly possessions to Cats Protection, and debated at length which one of our friends and family would have the skills, knowledge and patience to bring up Ethan in our absence. We could have had these conversations, and more, calmly and without pressure. And then we could have sat back in the knowledge that, although we couldn’t predict what life would throw at us, we could be assured that neither of us (and more importantly, Ethan) would have been left dealing with a financial shit storm as well as losing the love of our life.
So, we got in under the wire, with me fighting back the tears because it was ridiculously important to me that I be strong and stoic and hold everything and everyone together.
Since that day, I’ve had conversations with a lot of friends about how prepared they are for the worst. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not turned into some kind of doom and gloom merchant, but I no longer have any patience for, or belief in the whole “it would never happen to someone like me” thing. Death and taxes, and we pay people to sort out how much we owe HMRC. So we should really invest some time working out the practicalities of death so that it doesn’t make our lives that much harder.
I’ve never been a fan of homework, but I’m making an exception now. If you haven’t already got an (up-to-date) will or life insurance, then you need to stop reading this and go and sort it. Now. If you need some help then you can talk to Annika, she’s really friendly, won’t try to sell you anything, and will make the whole process as stress-free as possible. She can sit down with you (in person or via your favourite video call software) and take you through a Lifestyle Financial Health Check. It’s not scary, and it can help you work out what you want your family’s life to look like if you weren’t there. Next week I’ll talk about some other important, finance-related things that she can help you with. But for now, grab a glass of wine (or two), sit down with your partner, and work out whether you’re going to leave all your money to the Hedgehog Home.
Get in touch with Annika here