Photo of a checklist plan
Life

Planning for Death

It’s not a nice thought, but having a “worst-case scenario” plan is a brilliant idea.

For me, I had a little folder tucked away on my computer called WWID (AKA What Would I Do?). In this folder, I had spreadsheets and documents with instructions on exactly what I needed to do if my husband were to die. You may think it’s morbid or strange to plan for this event, but I can tell you now, I’m so glad I did.

Why did I create a plan?

So how did it come about? I guess context is important. I didn’t start out with a plan; it’s something that developed.

You see, I married a military man. His job put his life in danger. When we met and started getting serious, I didn’t really think about any of that because his actions were just like any other employed person I knew. Mostly he worked regular hours and had a predictable routine.

Then, a year after we began our relationship, Terry deployed on a UN peacekeeping operation in East Timor. Suddenly the actual possibility of danger hit me. He was away for months in a place where they had to carry weapons everywhere and took turns on guard duty.

For the first time, it occurred to me that his job could kill him. At eighteen years old the issue of mortality raised its head, and I had to ask myself, “What would I do if something happened to him?”

It was only a month before he left that we’d moved in together. He’d given me full access to all his financial accounts so I could pay his bills for him when he was away, but I didn’t know what else I needed to do if the worst were to happen.

Photo by Laika Notebooks on Unsplash

The stress was so high that I began researching and collecting information from any source that was relevant. Banks, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the Department of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Anyone I could think of. Then I collated all the information into a manila folder and stuck it in the bottom of my draw.

Just in case.

It was enough. I felt almost instant relief. If the worst were to happen, I at least had a place to start.

For some, the thought of worrying about paperwork and incidentals when the world shatters around you may seem trivial. For me, I knew I would need something to focus on. Something practical to do to stop me from going insane. Something to take my mind off grief, even if only for a few moments.

The evolution of the plan

So that’s where it started, a little manila folder tucked into the bottom of a drawer. However, by the time Terry went on his second deployment, this time to the Middle East, life had changed.

We were newlyweds, we’d bought a house, and we were expecting our first child. My computer was also now a permanent fixture in my life. A manila folder wasn’t going to cut it anymore.

Instead, I created a folder on my computer and called it WWID. What Would I Do? All the information I’d collected before was either scanned and added to the folder, or I’d downloaded updated copies and saved them instead. Our financial details were in this folder, and I had a scanned copy of Terry’s will (the Defence Force kept the original somewhere). I also worked out a budget that I could follow and had determined the priorities of what I should keep and what I would sell if the situation came to that.

I was prepared. I had a plan.

My plan gave me peace of mind because I knew if Terry didn’t return, I could survive financially. An added benefit was that by focusing on pulling together all this information and creating my plan, I was distracting myself from worrying about Terry.

The final version

Skip forward a few more years and Terry embarked on his last deployment, again to the Middle East. By this time we had four children, a bigger house and a bigger mortgage. I also wasn’t working. So again, I reworked my plan, not knowing that this time, I would need it. Not straight away, Terry didn’t die during the deployment. Instead, he suffered a severe injury, and his mental health declined. A year after being medically evacuated back to Australia, he took his own life.

Photo of spreadsheet on laptop
Photo by Lukas Blazek on Unsplash

At the time though, I didn’t know any of that would happen. I planned because it gave me control over my situation. I had four children that depended on me having a plan, that depended on me not falling apart if the worst should happen.

As with our family life, my plan had also changed over the years. By this stage, I had detailed budget spreadsheets, and a summary of payments I could expect to receive from life insurance, superannuation and military compensation schemes. It wasn’t about getting rich. I just wanted the security of knowing that if the sole income earner in our family wasn’t around, I could still provide for my kids.

Years before, Terry and I had agreed that I would stay home with the children while he went to work. As a result, I’d been out of work for a decade. The stress of not having a job was perhaps the greatest worry I had. Government Family Support payments would only go so far.

So I planned. I worked out my entitlements and what circumstances each type of payment required. I listed all my assets and again prioritised what I would want to keep and what I could leave behind. There was a step-by-step checklist of all the steps I would have to take from who to notify, to planning the funeral. I created a list of what memberships and licenses Terry held so I could cancel all of those too.

Knowing all this in advance meant that when the time came to making big decisions after Terry died, my emotions weren’t getting in the way. After all, I’d already decided when my mind was in a rational state. I just had to follow the plan.

Did it work?

So by now, you’re wondering if it was all worth it. Did I stick to my plan? Yes. And no.

Planning for an event and living the event are two entirely distinct things. Some decisions I’d made were unnecessary and others I adjusted or changed altogether. You can’t predict what will happen.

Having said that, I’m so glad I had the plan! Because even when I changed my mind about something, knowing why I’d made the original choice in the first place helped me know if my alternative choice was being made because of emotion or because of a well thought out reason.

At a time when I was the most emotional I have ever been in my life, my plan allowed me to take a step back and see things more clearly. It gave me a solid grounding that I could use to make my decisions.

One of the biggest decisions I made was to put my house on the market less than a month after Terry died. Almost everyone you meet will tell you not to make such a big decision in the first twelve months. You’re too emotional, you may regret it. I disagreed.

Because of my plan, I knew that financially trying to pay a mortgage while I was also trying to apply for all the various payments I could claim was going to be stressful. I also knew it might overwhelm me to the point of not being able to be the best mother I could be at a time when I barely even remembered who I was as a person.

Another bonus: the plan is transferable. So many family members and friends wanted to help me, so I looked at my list and I delegated the task. Mostly it was my sister. She’d gone online and found her own list of stuff that needed doing, and it was so similar to some of my tasks that I let her take over. When a few other items on my list popped up, I sent those her way too.

People want to help and when you’re in an emotionally heightened state, you should let them. Because my plan was being followed, I felt settled, even if I wasn’t taking each step myself.

Final Thoughts

Having a death plan won’t change the fact that you lost the person you love. Nothing will change that. It’s also not going to make grief any easier. But it can make life easier.

When death was all I could see, I was able to live and function long enough to move through those early days (months!) of grief. When everything was foggy and my ability to care barely lifted above zero, I let my plan do my thinking for me.

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