When Bad Things Happen to Happy Families
My grandmother clearly remembers that day. On a step ladder at my grandparents’ house, my mother called to my grandfather, “Dad? Come quick. I feel like I’m going to faint.” My grandfather got her off the ladder, and she laid down for a few minutes.
My grandmother sees this as proof of my mother and father’s tight bond, because at almost that exact time in New Jersey, my father radioed the airport, saying his right engine was on fire. A few minutes later, he radioed again, saying the engine had broken off and he was in a downward spiral. Those were his last words. The official report listed the damage to the plane as “destroyed.”
My grandmother got the call from a friend of my father’s, when she was in our kitchen with me and my sister. She kept her cool (remarkable, since she considered my dad one of her best friends in the world), calling a relative to come and get me and my sister. Then she drove home to tell my mother.
I was barely 3 at the time, so I don’t remember much about this time. The only utterly sad thing I do remember is a vision of my mother sometime during the weeks after, draped over the steering wheel of her pick-up truck, weeping.
The thing is, life went on, and I have many happy memories. I remember my mother asking me a few months later what color I wanted my new bedroom to be. (“Pink!”) I remember Mrs. Stamp’s private pre-school, where I learned about cocoons and how to spell “cat.” I remember walking, my hand in my sister’s, on the way to our grandparents’ house for a delicious Southern dinner of chicken and dumplings. I also remember my mother tapping numbers into her desk calculator, and the “chit chit chit” of it printing the results on ticker tape. She never looked at the numbers on the tape with panic or worry.
None of this would have been possible without life insurance.
If We Didn’t Have Life Insurance …
My mother was faced with a long list of sudden expenses: the funeral, lawyer fees for executing my dad’s estate, a mortgage, living expenses, private school and/or child care, and attempting to save for two college tuitions. If not for life insurance, she’d be doing all that with no income whatsoever, no job experience and savings that would only have lasted a few years.
It wouldn’t have been easy for her to get a job after nine years out of the workforce, especially in our tiny town. “I had no career to fall back on,” she says. “I would have had to go back to school.” She would have disappeared into the workforce and night school, and my sister would have been yanked from her school right after we lost our father.
We also wouldn’t have been able to finish the house, which would have meant an unsellable home with a giant mortgage. It would later take us three years to find a buyer for the finished home.
Life insurance answered all those questions. “It’s wrenching, but it’s a relatively simple process,” my mother says of making the life insurance claim. “You call up the insurance company; you tell them what happened. You fill out a form and you send in a death certificate.” Then they send you a check. (Today, most life insurance companies actually refuse to insure people with non-commercial pilot licenses, presumably because of a rash of accidents.)
In our case, the life insurance paid off the mortgage, and provided enough for my mother to continue to stay at home with us until I was in high school. It funded private school for my sister and me through 8th grade. Although we had only paid nine years of premiums, we received a giant influx of money that would sustain us until my mom reinvented herself as an interior designer when I was in high school and reentered the workforce on her own terms.
Of course, life wasn’t the way it was before. The dinner parties went away, overseas vacations changed to a week at the beach once a year and dining out a trip to Bud’s BBQ. But I was happy. I never noticed anything was “wrong” until I realized in third grade that, hey, everyone else has a dad and I didn’t. But now, as a grown adult, I realize how incredibly lucky I’ve been to have the life and opportunities I did. Things could have been so much worse.
The Advice My Mom Gives Anyone Who Will Listen
My mother has this advice for parents: “You have, have, have to get life insurance. Figure out what you can cut so you can afford it. It’s much more important to have life insurance than that extra dinner out.” Depending on your age and your health—see more about how to get quotes on policies below—a 20-year term life insurance policy with $1 million in coverage can cost as little as $50 a month.
Hopefully, you’ll never need it. But as my family learned, bad things do happen. Life insurance couldn’t replace my dad, but it did replace the income we depended on, and kept my childhood relatively intact.
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