Today’s post is not based on a news item, but on a personal experience I had over the weekend. I hope you’ll bear with me.
Last week, my dad’s wife’s father got up in the middle of the night, either to go to the bathroom or to get some food or something, and he slipped and hit his head on the tile floor. He made it back to bed, but never woke up again. Comatose for a day, the internal bleeding within his skull starved his brain of oxygen, and by Friday, he was gone. My wife and I took our kids to the viewing, which was a first for the little ones. It was old hat for me. I’ve been to way too many of these things.
My step-grandfather (which feels strange, even to type) was somebody I had only met once, at my father’s wedding, but he was a nice fellow who clearly loved his family, and despite his years, could have lived for many more had he not been laid low by a tragic accident. It was one of those things that underscores the notion that your home is the most dangerous place to be. That’s the problem with life; it’s dangerous.
He had been married for nearly 62 years, which is longer than a lot of people get to live, period. His wife was dignified and noble, considering the circumstances, but it was clear she was hurting deeply. The grim truth was that she is now a serious health risk; people don’t stay married for six decades and then shrug off the loss of their partner. Death by heartbreak is very real, indeed.
But what struck me most about the viewing was when we entered the funeral home. As we walked into the viewing room, some friends of the family were sitting along that back wall, and their infant daughter was crawling around, happy as could be, but blocking the path. As we smiled while her daddy picked her up, it struck me that here we were, to honor the end of one life, but were forced to acknowledge the start of another. There was a poignancy to that moment, and it helped to soften the rest of the viewing for me.
That night, we went home and decided to relax together by watching some television. Lucky us, we caught an episode of Dr. Who, wherein the Doctor and his sidekick – a girl whose father was killed in an auto accident before she ever got to know him – travel through time in a vain attempt to prevent the auto accident from happening. It was a good episode, and it ended the way any story like that would; changing history had negative consequences, and the only way things could be fixed was the character of the dad had to accept his fate and die anyway. You can’t change the tragedies that define our lives, no matter how much we want to.
I tucked my kids into bed and moments later, my son came downstairs to tell me that I really needed to talk to my daughter. Frustrated, I stomped upstairs thinking the kids were just angling for some extra time to stay up, but my daughter was crying hard. “I don’t ever want you to die,” she told me.
It’s a moment every parent comes across, I suppose. It’s also one nobody ever prepares you for.
I sat on my daughter’s bed and held her and I told her that I would be around for a long time, and that she had nothing to worry about. What else could I say? My job was to comfort my little sweetpea, and enable her to sleep soundly. I couldn’t tell her what I knew to be true: that I will do everything to live for as long as I can, yes. But I don’t know if a car will take me out or if I will fall to some unnamed plague or succumb to any number of premature ends that could befall me. I just don’t know. That’s why my wife and I have insured ourselves as much as we have. Because we just don’t know. Nobody does.
I went downstairs and meant to talk to my wife about it, but she was already asleep on the couch. And so I started writing this out, reflecting at first on the emotional content of the day, but in a more distanced sense, on what it really meant to insure our lives. We call death insurance life insurance, and we call life insurance health insurance, as if the importance of these things is so heavy that we can’t really look them in the face. Even when we take measures to prepare for them, we cannot call them by name, as if to do otherwise would invite their occurrence. There is such a powerful, visceral tone to contending with these issues that it boggles my mind when I encounter the mainstream notion is that selling life insurance is some kind of boring, whitebread job that requires an unusual mix of personal blandness and tenacity. But I know this to be untrue.
Earlier in the week, I had the chance to ask a life insurance executive if selling life insurance was something you did, or something you are. He said with confidence that it was something you are; nobody gets into the trade of delivering money to grieving mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and children on a lark. Maybe some do it for the high potential compensation, but eventually, they must all face the transaction of money for the loss of a loved one, and that cannot come easily. Speaking with one of my editors just today, he noted that for many life agents, actually dealing with the death of their clients is often an unexpected emotional burden, and it lends a certain moral component to a business transaction that would otherwise be fairly impersonal. We hear so often that in business, it never pays to mix one’s business and personal lives, but in this industry, I don’t see how keeping the two separate is entirely possible. It makes the work of a life agent that much more complicated.
And in the end, that much more indispensable.