From Grief to Joy
Rebuilding an Abundant Life
By Ella Wall Prichard, Author, widow, CEO, mom, world traveler
As my husband’s health began to fail, I knew that his early death was likely – congestive heart failure is a terminal disease. I began to pay more attention to business and financial issues and, out of necessity, I took on some of the chores that had always been on Lev’s “honey-do” list.
But nothing prepared me for widowhood. I felt completely unequipped for all that had to be done in the aftermath of his death. Bank accounts, his office and business, the new car he bought just four days before his death, filing for probate and taxes, a nuisance lawsuit in which he was the defendant – the list of responsibilities, which one day were his and the next day mine, was never-ending.
A friend warned me, “They will not give you time to grieve.” But I welcomed the busyness, for I did not want time to think: not about the pain of the recent past brought on by Lev’s declining health and final illness, not of the business that needed to be taken care of immediately, nor of the possibility of living decades as a widow. Mustering the courage and will to plow ahead consumed my energy. Trying to grasp my legal and financial situation overloaded my brain. I discovered that if I worked at my desk until I was too tired to hold up my head, I could fall asleep without being flooded with too many bad memories from the past or fears about the future.
One week after Lev died, I received an unexpected call from his financial advisors – three people sitting around a speaker phone in Chicago – without forewarning or an opportunity to have my attorney on the line. The advisors’ team leader informed me that the bank – one of the too-big-to-fail banks, reacting to the financial catastrophe that was in high gear – would no longer manage my investments as it had for generations of Lev’s family. I was given 30 days to decide whether to give the bank total discretion to handle all investments, including asset allocation, or manage them myself.
Through the years, Lev repeatedly told me that I did not need to know the details of his business because “they will be here for you.” They were not. He said, “Everything you need is in the four-drawer locked file cabinet.” It was not. We quickly realized that all of our estate planning had focused on taxes. I could not remember a conversation in 46 years of marriage where professional advisors discussed with us the difficulty of administration or stresses on the family.
In estate planning meetings, our attorney had assured me, “Nothing will change when Lev dies.” Everything changed. How could it not? This was April 7, 2009, one month after the stock market bottomed. I was a week away from tax day but knew nothing about income tax preparation. Assets were pouring out the door, and there was nothing I could do to stop the bleeding. That first month, I was completely overwhelmed by grief, fear and anxiety.
Going to Work
I summoned the strength to tackle Lev’s downtown office, where he was managing partner of a small independent oil and gas company. Each day I made the same trip that he enjoyed so much: to pick up mail at the downtown post office, a haven for the homeless, and then to the parking garage, service stairs, crosswalk to his building, elevator to the sixth floor and down a long hall to Suite 600. I felt like an intruder searching through his space. I dared not throw away a scrap of paper without examining it first.
There, in the right-hand desk drawer were the papers he had gathered for our tax returns. On the surface, everything was normal. The file room, however, told the story of his deteriorating health, and I could date his decline by the state of his files. Three four-drawer file cabinets overflowed. Shelves built to hold office supplies were piled with monthly reports dating back several years.
I moved The Wall Street Journal to home delivery, and it became my financial textbook. I labored over the Journal every day, with Barron’s Finance & Investment Handbook—all 1,220 pages—at my side so that I could look up every unfamiliar word, acronym and phrase. Within the month, the family met with Lev’s longtime attorney and accountant to begin the lengthy process of filing for probate and settling the estate. They reviewed the terms of Lev’s will and trusts, explained how the terms would affect us and outlined my responsibilities as executor and trustee. Our advisors took the lead in planning and organizing the search for a new bank and trust officer. Three weeks later, all seven of us – my children and their spouses, along with our attorney and accountant – attended the first of 13 bank interviews. The process would take us to four cities and three states until we chose BBH.
A Strain on Family Relationships
I discovered that trusts change everything – most importantly, family relationships. A widowed mother and her children become primary and remainder beneficiaries, with built-in conflicts of interest. Even if they are not trustees, heirs have the legal right to be informed about the trusts’ status. Achieving unity – having a shared vision of how funds are to be managed and distributed – is challenging and requires great intentionality, especially in the midst of grief. Family members have different personalities and needs. They respond differently to stress. They grieve differently.
In the first quarter 2016 Women & Wealth Magazine article, “Crossed Wires: Why Most Generational Wealth Transfers Fail,” BBH Chief Investment Strategist Scott Clemons cited a 25-year study of wealth transfers, which found that 70% of transfers failed, with just a tiny percentage due to poor professional advice. A staggering 97% of failures were due to the breakdown of family communication and trust. Our advisors warned us of the high risk of family fights and lawsuits, a situation we were determined to avoid. Ultimately, despite tensions and misunderstandings that developed that first year, we all accepted the full authority of what Lev had put in writing. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we had to live and work and relate to one another within the parameters of the legal documents.
From Smiling Spouse to Client
My responsibilities terrified me. I had no practical how-to books to guide me and few friends who had been down this road. My advisors did not furnish me with a written checklist for settling the estate. Instead, they gave verbal instructions, one step at a time. I leapt ahead of them and made mistakes, especially in disposing of Lev’s personal effects.
I had never had the need to be so strong, so tough. Lev had always been the “bad cop” in our marriage. I did not know how to move from smiling spouse and gracious hostess to client with longtime advisors whom Lev had considered friends. Instead of addressing issues promptly, I let them slide until my anger boiled over; then I overreacted. Eventually, I learned to ask questions and express disagreement and disapproval more calmly, rationally and quickly.
Gradually, I built my own team with the family’s active involvement: first, a new financial advisor and trust officer; then, a new attorney; and finally, after our accountant’s retirement, a relationship with a younger partner in his firm. Having to trust them, giving up control and allowing them to know all my business were hardest of all. My new advisors related to me very differently than those who originally knew me as Lev’s wife. As my trust and confidence in them grew, so did my willingness to let go of trying to manage everything. I dissolved Lev’s longtime oil and gas partnership, auctioned operating interests, and turned over management of mineral rights to professionals.
Rediscovering Abundance and Joy
During the years of Lev’s declining health, I simply could not deal with my own health. We had more doctor appointments on the calendar than I wanted to think about, but it was more than a lack of time. I was worried about my husband. I coped by simply denying that I needed to take care of myself.
“Achieving unity- having a shared vision of how funds are to be managed and distributed is challenging and requires great intentionality, especially in the midst of grief.”
After his death, swamped with work, I did not have time to worry about myself. I saw my doctor about my anxiety – tight throat, tight chest, insomnia – but walked out of the cardiologist’s office when I was sent there for an echocardiogram and stress test. I had flashbacks of all the times I had been there with Lev. For more than 10 years, I watched the pounds pile on and did nothing, until finally the combination of vanity and bad knees forced me to consult a nutritionist about my diet.
According to Dr. Helen Harris, grief expert and assistant professor at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University, grief has many dimensions: physical, psychological, social and spiritual. She always advises those she counsels to get a complete physical because grief compromises the immune system. If hormones are too low or too high, clinical depression can set in. For weeks or even months, we have cognitive issues. We simply don’t remember things.
I would add financial to the list of dimensions of grief, for I had no clear picture of our finances or our expenditures when Lev died. Afterward, my income did not stretch as far as it had, and it took me two years to stop the red ink. For the longest time, I wore a mask of strength and stoic acceptance, not admitting my pain and loneliness to anyone. In finally allowing myself to admit and process my grief, I sorted out what I could change and what I could not. I moved from anger, fear and anxiety to acceptance and serenity.
If I have learned anything, it is that abundant living does not come from an abundance of things but from an abundance of good friends, meaningful relationships and a purposeful life. Giving to and doing for others is far more satisfying than spending on myself. At the same time, I cannot ignore my own physical, spiritual, emotional, social and financial needs if I want to remain independent and self-sufficient.
By trial and error, I seem to have acquired greater wisdom and better judgment. The rate of change has slowed. I take longer to reflect before I act. I weigh my decisions more carefully. The work – bills, cars and household maintenance, as well as legal, accounting and financial issues – has become mostly routine and predictable.
I am taking care of myself again. I have rebuilt my life. I have reclaimed joy.
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