Sometimes a piece of junk mail can really make your day. Widowed people are pretty used to receiving mail, email, and phone calls for their late spouses. At first, these situations can hurt, and be another occasion to "break the news" yet again… but as time goes on, the picture gets a little funnier: the dumbest marketers are the last to catch on. And once in a while, it's downright HILARIOUS.
Like the other day, when my late husband received a bulky envelope from United of Omaha Life Insurance Company. On the envelope there was no question who was being addressed — or what they wanted from him:
"Here's that second chance you hoped for, Gavin O'Shaunnessy!"
I open it up to find a direct and engaging, yet serious letter. There are lots of small official looking bits of paper, some that look like certificates, an easy card to fill out, and oh my — a prepaid business reply envelope. As a widow, I can really use that 44 cents somewhere else. It's just so hard not to talk back to this solicitation, which often puts words into my mouth, like:
"Why didn't I get more life insurance when I was younger?…. "
Or maybe when I was alive?
"… And when it was cheaper?"
Well, um, gee, err… it probably won't get any cheaper than THIS.
"Now you've got the opportunity to get up to $10,000.00 graded benefit whole life insurance protection at an affordable cost… Your acceptance is guaranteed and your application is pre-approved."
Should I laugh or cry? When he was diagnosed with cancer, I would have killed for some life insurance -- he had just a tiny bit, because he'd lived with a heart valve defect and was self-employed. We couldn't find any that he qualified for. We kept our eyes peeled for envelopes like this. Too bad this offer arrived more than four years after he died. So, you know, I'm skeptical when the letter intones, in green gothic type,
"You can't be turned down."
RILLY? I say. Wannabet?
So I strongly considered filling the policy out. After all, as the letter states, "this insurance does not require a medical examination." And they make it so easy… that envelope was really (I had no IDEA) an IMMEDIATE ACTION ENVELOPE. The application was a big piece of paper, legal sized, two colors, but I only needed to fill out a few fields, and read the attached Post-it with Gavin's special preapproved authorization number: 519 858 890.
The forms were peppered with grown-up (if not senior-citizen) phrases like "beneficiary," "estate," "protection," "cash value," and an assurance that he'd be protected till age 121. (Suicide, of course, was excluded.) One table contained the word "GUARANTEED!" nine times in a row.
The whole package just left me feeling… I don't know. Confident. Comforted. Covered. Except for the fact, of course, that it was addressed to someone who couldn't, um, read.
Such a simple offer, a no brainer, with practically no effort required: payments could be made via "Easy Pay Option." I mean, even a dead guy could fill this out, right?
I laughed for a day solid, and so did my new husband, and I wondered if it would be even more fun if I applied, filed a claim, and had the requisite phone calls: this time, finally, with me at an advantage. Aren't they asking for it?
I mean, this is a company that bought a very very cheap mailing list. How careful could they be? They might even pay!
Then I realized that they would probably, at some point in the process, and possibly before issuing my check, ask for a death certificate. They'd probably notice that he was dead before the postmark date on my reply OR their offer.
It would probably be fun, but even United of Omaha was probably not dumb enough to fall for it.
And you know what? I've got better things to do with my time.
But it's hard to get this good a laugh out of a mailbox these days.
[Read What Short Stack gets, part 1 and part 2.]
Bad news, Mommy. Really bad news. You know that really really terrible sickness where everybody's hair falls out and then they die?
Well, it's going around.
(Pause) Honey, most of the really bad sicknesses like that aren't catching. It can't be spread around at your school.
But lots and lots of people are getting that sickness. It's very dangerous.
Maybe... do you think those kids are talking about cancer?
(She spun around, excited.) Yes, cancer, that's it! It's going around at my school and lots of people are going to die from it.
(I owed you a post anyway, about my mixed feelings about cancer advocacy AND my analysis of the current environment in cancer research based on being a science writer and advocate and family member at the same time for 2 years. About how hope sucks sometimes (even though yes, I'd want it!) and no one who understands research on most cancers is really reaching for a cure anymore, anyway. It would have been a black and confusing post that failed to conceal my vitriol and hurt. You're better off with this one, anyway, at least for now.)
Ah, well, cancer. Mommy is an expert at cancer.
Really? Amelia said more than one half of all people will get cancer and so that means they will die!
(This is actually as severe a misunderstanding of this basic statistic as I heard from a 40-year-old at my HS reunion last year. Demonstrating, I guess, that it wasn't a very good high school, and that my 7-year-old could, by tomorrow, be ahead of that adult in her understanding of statistics.)
Well, Amelia is not quite understanding what those numbers mean. That's not how cancer works and even though it can be very dangerous, not that many people will die from it. I can answer a lot of questions about cancers, if you want to talk about it. I used to work with doctors and other smart people who study cancer. And remember, your Daddy had cancer.
That's what he died from?
Yes. But there are more than 200 different kinds of cancer, and the one that Daddy had was one of the very, very strong ones. There are a lot of different kinds, and some of them are easy to take care of. You don't have anything to worry about. Maybe some of the other kids know someone who had a cancer, too?
Yes, Francie says that her mommy's sister had it and her grandma and that her mommy had it, too.
That's very sad. I'm sorry to hear that.
And Joey's little sister is only three years old, no, one years old maybe, and she has it, too.
That's terrible, when a little kid gets sick. I mean, we know a little kid didn't do anything to catch the cancer, right?
How does somebody catch cancer, Mommy?
Well, we really don't know all the reasons why someone gets cancer, but we do know some things that no one should ever do, that are super duper dangerous, like smoking cigarettes.
My Daddy used to smoke a LOT LOT LOT!
Well, not quite, he stopped smoking a long long time ago, but yes, he did used to smoke when he was much younger. For most people if they get cancer, there usually isn't just one reason.
Are you going to get cancer and die?
Well, everybody has to die sometime, but I hope that my body lasts for a long, long long time, until you are all grown up and for some time after that too. But hardly anyone in my family has ever had cancer which means I am very very lucky. Sounds like a lot of people in Francie's family have had cancer?
But Daddy got cancer and died! That means you could get it, too.
No, I am not related to Daddy in that way -- I was married to him but my parents don't have any cancer in their families. Remember that show you saw about DNA?
(She knows just enough about DNA to know it's sort of like Google, because later the same day she told me: "I know how the Magic 8-Ball knows everything. It has DNA in it, and the DNA goes out and asks everybody in the world and then the Magic 8-Ball gives us the answer." Which, I suppose, is slightly more accurate than her previous belief that the Magic 8-Ball was really magic. She has not got to ESP yet, or, the Magic 8-Ball can read your mind.)
My DNA from my healthy family means that I will probably not get cancer, or at least, probably not for a very long time.
But I am in Daddy's family! I could get it!
I don't think you will, honey. Even if you get some kind of cancer, maybe when you are very old, you might get one of the cancers that is easy to treat.
(I didn't go into how research is advancing so quickly that by the time she is older, there will already be cures for most of those 200 types of cancer. Which, remember, I'm totally not on board with. But I might have to be, now. Right? Because you can't live in this world without hope and comfort and without simplifying some of the pictures in it?).
Sweetie, it's normal to be scared about very bad sicknesses like cancer, but we also have to remember to cross the street carefully, and stay away from foods that might have a little bit of a peanut in them. I don't think you have too much to worry about with cancer or too many of the other dangerous things in the world. Just be as careful as you already are and maybe a little tiny bit more. You're going to be alive for a long, long time and I will be with you as long as I can, honey.
1. FLOR products are design forward and encourage your own creativity. FLOR has easy online tools to find the right product and (gasp!) design your own wonderful solution for any space. FLOR IS ART, man! And FLOR is kind: they will hold your hand while you dream.
2. FLOR suits your personality — whatever it is today. FLOR can be colorful and playful, or subdued and neutral. FLOR can draw attention or divert it. FLOR can sing, on-key or off-, or speak only when it's spoken to. FLOR loves modern, transitional, and traditional design schemes equally. (Parent company, Interface, also makes modular carpet tile solutions for commercial and contract use).
|One of a dozen designs I made using FLOR's online tools.|
4. FLOR is economical and versatile. You can use it in basements and entryways. You don't need to get a matching "runner" style for odd-shaped areas. You can take FLOR with you when you move and reinstall it — in a different configuration, if you like.
5. FLOR is practical around pets, children, and others who leak a lot, which is to say, it's very easy to clean. Even spoiled, you can replace a single tile easier than pie. FLOR is low-pile and allergy-friendly.
6. You can use FLOR in ways you'd never use carpet. Because FLOR's low tack "keeps it down," you can create jagged edges or cut curves and not worry about anyone tripping on an edge. FLOR doesn't require accessories (like carpet pads or special cleaners) and its low-tack backing is kind to your hardwood floors.
7. FLOR is easy and kind of fun to install on your own or with a friend.
8. FLOR loves me and published my own little story.
9. FLOR is easy to talk about. I pretty much sell it to every person who visits my home, which includes several rooms made better with FLOR. I hand out catalogs at parties. I am somehow still fairly popular because FLOR is so great.
10. FLOR recently started a blog advertising campaign. I hope they see this post because I ADORE FLOR.
How do you know when you're turning the corner on grief?, they ask. There's hope and confusion in their eyes. And who wouldn't want the pain to end? But I can't lie and say, "On day one of year two, you will be all fixed up." I would never say that; they believe it anyway. (I believed it too. We must all make it up with our good imaginations.) And you can't tell them time makes any difference, even though it's totally true, because they will hit you. I might say, "give it time," and "I'm not sure there's really a corner, but you will feel better one day."
Here's what it felt like to be turning the corner on grief:
- I had more good days than bad days.
- I started to get ideas about things I wanted to do next.
- I began to feel that my loss was not the worst thing that ever happened to anyone.
- I had urges to see friends, exercise, clean up, and change things around.
- I started to be able to help other people.
I think what's important is knowing that for most of us, it's not dramatic, nor even a single event. (We say "grief is not linear," but seriously, is anything in life linear?) For most of us, we say we feel like we're going "two steps forward, one step back," (often, "two back and one forward"). We say it's a bumpy road, or a rollercoaster. We say it's better when the peaks are higher and the valleys are less low. Most valuable is knowing that the time scale is incredibly long: no matter how long "grief" lasts, it's not unusual for it to take several years to get to a stable place where you smile a lot. But it's not linear: you're not inconsolable and disabled and an open wound the entire time. You keep changing and the world keeps moving too, and sometimes you are in sync with it.
Sometimes you can find a perfect metaphor even if it doesn't QUITE fit. This story about the wonderful Frog and Toad (by Arnold Lobel) captures at least one tiny bit of it perfectly: that progress happens when things just keep moving along, however they will, and whatever you think you're looking for, keep your eyes open to the world around you.
My daughter hates it when story time makes me cry but these gentle little reptiles always get me in the gut. Toad has been soaked in the rain, and Frog shares a story about how his father told him to buck up, "spring is just around the corner:"
"I wanted Spring to come.(I love that worm. I love Frog and Toad so much).
I went out
to find that corner.
I walked down a path in the woods
until I came to a corner.
I went around the corner
to see if Spring was on the other side."
"And was it?" asked Toad.
"No," said Frog.
"There was only a pine tree,
three pebbles and some dry grass.
in the meadow.
Soon I came to
I went around the corner
to see if Spring was there."
"Did you find it?" asked Toad.
"No," said Frog.
"There was only
an old worm
asleep on a
And so on. Four corners, and spring is not around any of them. Disappointed, tired, Frog heads home as it starts to rain.
"When I got [home]," said Frog,
"I found another corner.
It was the corner of my house."
"Did you go around it?"
"I went around that corner, too,"
"What did you see?"
"I saw the sun coming out,"
said Frog. "I saw birds
sitting and singing in a tree.
I saw my mother and father
working in their garden.
I saw flowers in the garden."
"You found it!" cried Toad.
"Yes," said Frog.
"I was very happy.
I had found the corner
that Spring was just around."
So keep hope in your eyes... but keep those peepers open, peeps, especially when things are changing. Spring's a-comin'.
"Of course, these numbers would look a lot different if you'd sold it in 2005 or 2006," he said with the bright kind of regret that makes you know he had a good year that year. He was nice enough -- more than nice, really -- the real estate agent. The knife didn't even cut that deep.
But it's not that easy to hear that my single largest investment (which was really supposed to be simply HOME) is going to be worth so much less than I'd thought, hoped, and scribbled idly on the back of so many envelopes. 44 years and this is the one thing I did right: buying low. 13 years ago, wrapped up in my first life, trying to build dreams.
What we went through there! The tries to procreate. The birth of our child, the opening of his dream studio out there past the mud. What we ripped up and destroyed: the channel above was for our only really big home improvement, his studio, the muddy trench where they'd lay the electrical conduit. Then the cancer, the numb, the passion, the hope, the surgeries, the failures over and over again. The little things, the shingles, the thrush, our child's first words, the times alone home when he was in the hospital. 2006 was the year he died, but the entire year was downhill fast, and sliding, and murky.
Time went on, that bubble burst, and now, more than trenches, I think of the tranches of debt that made up the CDOs into which most of us lost money, and homes, and security. The financial foundation that fell out from under us, or was shown to be missing. I didn't care much about that economy, though it was golden and blooming while my honey fell apart and broke before my eyes. I didn't notice that bubble of real estate money, which was real for some, briefly, grew and grew and then leaked some air in a series of small burps. It hardly mattered among everything else; I was falling in love again. A few hours after Lehman fell, in fact, we went out shopping for a diamond.
Widows are bulletproof, did you know? Or at least full of contempt for the small things, and after what we've been through, everything's small.
But that trench is the earth bleeding, a wound that had to be dug to build something new, a something new that was never fulfilled and will soon be sold. For so much less. And with it, I'd like to let go of all those disappointments, all those losses, and everything that didn't work well. I'd like to heal, and patch them all, but I wish I had a bigger band aid.
My new online community, Widowed Village, a collaboration with the non-profit organization, the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation, went live at midnight Monday.
It really WAS like giving birth, including the whole "9 months" part. This is a service widowed people have been asking me for ever since I energized the widowed space on Facebook late in 2009, but it's something that couldn't happen without a whole community behind it. Thanks to the many folks who helped -- and boy is there a lot to do coming up, too!
Thanks for your enthusiastic reception and all the ideas you've shared in the past few months. Badges for your blogs, a press release to make it easy to "get the facts" right, and other features will be coming soon.