You’re dying, too.
Every last one of us, who’s ever breathed a breath, is dying.
And we’re all a little closer than we were in the time it took me to write this sentence and the time it took you to read it.
In 2010, the most recent year the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has published complete data, 2,468,435 people died in America. Of those deaths:
- 597,689 died of heart disease
- 574,743 died of cancer
- 138,080 died of chronic lower respiratory diseases
- 129,476 died of strokes (cerebrovascular diseases)
- 83,494 died of Alzheimer’s
Those were not the only ways people died. They burned. They froze. They died of dehydration. They died with water in their lungs. They died of exposure. They died of intoxication. They died of snakebites. They died of bear attacks. They were murdered. They committed suicide. They fell asleep and drove off the road. They fell asleep and never woke up. They died every way imaginable. They died in ways no one should ever envision.
Some died in an instant. Others took years to die. People died never knowing death had come for them. People died after a living wake, time enough for loved ones to stop by and make peace, to say their goodbyes.
Death does not discriminate. The elderly died the most but the young died, too. The obese died. So did the thin. Tall people died. Short people died. Vegetarians died. Carnivores died. The intravenously fed died. Men died, as did women, fathers, sons, mothers and daughters. The married, divorced, straight and gay died. Christians, Muslims, Jewish, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists and Agnostics died; black, white, brown, red and yellow died. The rich died. So did the poor.
No, death does not discriminate. Death comes for those who wait and for those who do not. Ultimately, the only thread connecting the dead is death itself.
Death, a love story
When we think of death, we think of the body, how the blood pressure drops, the heartbeat stops — all those bodily functions that say no more. What doesn’t stop? The bills, the mounting debt, an avalanche of mail that keeps coming, and, if the deceased did not plan for his death, a maddening paper trail for his widow to sort through.
I say widows because women live longer than men, and widows, in particular, outlive their husbands. According to a 2010 study conducted by the Administration on Aging, there were over four times as many widows (8.9 million) as widowers (2.1 million).
One such widow, who I’ll refer to as Miss Jeannette, lost her husband on Oct. 26, 2011. Dates mean something to widows. They lock in a memory, a time and place, of when their loved one still lived. For Miss Jeannette, dates rattle off her tongue without aid. She takes me back to when her husband’s health issues began.
An engineer by trade, Phillip looked for ways to unwind after work. In his late 20s, he played first base on a local softball team. With the crack of the bat, Phillip would plant his foot on the bag and wait for the ball. But something weird happened during the season. As the ball got closer to him it would disappear. They thought he had a brain tumor. Test revealed he had macular degeneration. He was going blind.
In the following decades other health concerns would follow. He suffered a stroke at age 49 in ‘91 and another stroke in ‘94. He broke his hip in 2006. In 2010 doctors told Phillip he had diabetes.
“He was a strong, strong man,” says Miss Jeannette. “He kept on going.”
In February of 2010 they met financial advisor Mark Pruitt at a steak seminar at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Miss Jeannette and Phillip were interested in setting up a trust and having an IRA rolled over.
They scheduled a follow-up meeting with Pruitt at the Dallas office of his firm, Strategic Estate Planning Services, to go over their plan. Some missing pieces to the puzzle emerged. The couple had a living will drawn up when their kids were little. What they didn’t have was power of attorney on each other.
They also lacked a guardianship document. At that point, Pruitt referred them to an attorney, as he does anytime legal documents are required. “A planner should never do legal work. That’s the attorney’s job, but then the attorney isn’t handling the financial aspect.”
On June 17, 2011, Phillip had another stroke. “He couldn’t speak or see so it was important they had the power of attorney in place,” says Pruitt. “When he couldn’t talk, (Miss Jeannette) had to make all these medical decisions and she could because of the POA (Power of Attorney). Due to HIPPA Laws they won’t even release medical records to a spouse without the POA. ”
Over the next several months Phillip’s health deteriorated. He would go from hospital to rehab and back to the hospital. Miss Jeannette, who had been planning to retire soon, took an extended leave to care for her husband. After another stroke, Phillip communicated to his wife that he wanted to donate his body to science upon his death. He filled out those forms, ones in which Phillip signed an X, with a notary present. He spent his last days and weeks under a hospice nurse’s care at home.
Before we end our conversation, Miss Jeannette tells me another story about her husband. Before he lost his sight he won trophies for bowling. He continued to bowl through the years though he couldn’t see the pins. “We would line him up and tell him how many pins were left and where they were,” says Miss Jeannette. “He could still beat us as long as he knew what was in front of him.”
Too often, though, people don’t have a plan, according to Pruitt. They don’t want to discuss death. They don’t want to plan for their future. “We find that most people plan their vacations better than they plan their estates.”
Pruitt is among a too small percentage of advisors who give their clients the “death” talk when the clients are healthy. Talking about getting the estate in order is time consuming and rarely results in an immediate commission, but it’s vital to the survivors, as it saves them from worrying about financial matters at a time when they’re already grieving about the loss of their spouse or loved one.
Pruitt provides every client with a three-page document related to death settlements. The checklist is voluminous and can take several meetings to complete. The document covers just about every aspect of a person’s life (and death), including temporary living arrangements for dependents as well as pets. Other items include valuables, checking accounts, promissory notes, pre- and post-marital arrangements, insurance policies, investments, property, IRAs and pensions just to name a few.
“We want to take care of all of this paperwork ahead of time, when you’re healthy, because when you’re grieving you don’t care about the paperwork,” says Pruitt, “but here’s the thing: these bills don’t stop.”
The widows don’t want to deal with it. So they don’t. They don’t know which way to turn. So they don’t move. They are stuck in a moment as if they could freeze time to the very instant when their loved one was still alive.
Pruitt has gone into homes where the widow hasn’t opened the mail in a year. In one case, the home was about to be foreclosed on. Hidden under a mound of bills was the husband’s life insurance policy. Open the mail. Sign the policy. Send it in and save your house. Sometimes that’s all it takes and sometimes even that amount of mental stress is too much.
The grieving process is unique to each person, says Pruitt, who served as a minister before turning to the insurance and financial industries. Some people are an emotional wreck. Others stay busy to the point that they never allow themselves the time to slow down. For those people, the nights can be especially difficult, when all the activity of the day stops and they crawl into bed, left alone with their thoughts.
The phone rings at 2 a.m. Jim Olson stirs. He keeps the phone close. While most people mute their phone in the evening or turn it off altogether to get uninterrupted sleep, Olson keeps his turned on throughout the night, especially at night.
In those quiet hours, when most of us want nothing more than a good night’s sleep, the phone rings for Olson. He used to close his eyes and sleep soundly like the rest of us, back when he was a music teacher in New York. Back then, Olson taught piano and organ and voice, and, after a cacophonous day of music and song, he wanted nothing more than a night of quiet, dreamy dreams.
Now when the phone rings at 2 a.m., he answers without pause. He sleeps these days like the cowboys of the Wild West, with one eye open, knowing at any moment a phone call is looming. Usually, this initial call comes from his answering service. He listens to the voice on the other end of the line. He jots down the needed information—a name, an address. After more than a decade in his second career, he knows the drill.