Widowed at 26: How Life Insurance Became My Lifeboat
11:30 am, December 24th | by Cathy Smith*, as told to Cheryl Lock
In our “Money Mic” series, we hand over the podium to someone with an opinion on a financial topic. These are their opinions, not ours, but we welcome a constructive, thoughtful discussion.
Today, one woman shares how her life took an unexpected turn, what that meant for her young family and how she coped–emotionally and financially, with the help of life insurance.
According to a nationwide survey conducted by LearnVest and Guardian, even though most respondents seem to link buying life insurance to having a family and the people who depend on them for income, no one likes going through the process of finding life insurance–in fact, 1 in 4 people would rather clean out their fridge!
When I married James* in 1978, I was 21 years old. I never could have imagined then that I’d be a widow by 26, or that I’d have a 9-month-old baby to take care of on my own.
Yet that’s what happened, and the nest egg that our life insurance policy provided was instrumental in helping my daughter and me to move forward. Despite our tragedy, I was secure in the knowledge that I was okay financially.
My story is a reminder that once you have a family—no matter your age—life insurance is absolutely essential.
I didn’t want to think about that at the time, but lucky for me, my husband did.
Life as a Newlywed
I met James for the second time in 1976 during my last year of nursing school, when he came by my parents’ house to help build some bookshelves. I had known him for a few years, since he was good friends with my sister’s husband. Until then, neither of us had thought much about each other because he was five years my senior, and I was still in my mid-teens.
James was the kind of person everyone loved. He was smart and funny, and everyone in my family already knew and adored him. So when he asked me to attend a party, I thought, Why not?
A little less than two years later, we were married.
James was always a few steps ahead of me. I guess that’s what happens when there are five years between you. After we married, we lived in an apartment for a short while before James suggested we buy a house. As a construction worker, he loved the idea of purchasing a fixer-upper, and promised that we would save a ton of money because he’d make all the upgrades himself.
So by the time I was 23, I was a married homeowner. This certainly wasn’t how I had planned for my life to go. Before James, I dreamed of living in my own apartment for a while, and maybe even joining the Army as a nurse. Love, for me, was unexpected. It was wonderful, yes, but I hadn’t planned on it happening so soon. But as James went on suggesting these changes—getting married, purchasing a house, renovations—I soon began sharing his enthusiasm.
Expanding Our Family
James was ready to start a family sooner than we did, but he never pressured me, nor did he ask when I might be ready. He just waited for me to say I was, which was a good thing.
By 1981, I had taken a job at a pediatric hospital in Philadelphia, working in the Infant Transitional Unit. While it was hard work, it was also important and rewarding.
Of course, being around kids meant that my mind was constantly on family. I wondered how I’d know when I was ready to start my own family. Some of the older nurses clued me in that they’d probably notice it first by how much extra time I spent holding the babies.
And that’s exactly what happened.
James and I were married for four years when I gave birth to our daughter, Leslie, in June of 1982. It was a happy time.
Just nine months later, I would be widowed.
Why We Got Life Insurance
As soon as we became pregnant, James started talking about life insurance — but I was hesitant. I was 24, but James was already thinking like an adult. It’s not that I wasn’t an adult; the topic of life insurance was just scary. I was pregnant with our yet-to-be-born child, and the last thing I wanted to think about was one of us dying.
I had firsthand knowledge of death–I’d started volunteering at the hospital at age 12, then worked as a nurse’s aide before becoming a nurse. Still, dealing with death was a painful part of my career.
But James was right, and I eventually gave in. He made it as easy for me as he could. The agent came to our home, so we would be comfortable, and the questions really weren’t that invasive.
It was the right choice for us at that time—and, as it turned out, it was a good thing that we didn’t wait any longer.
The Day I Lost My Husband
James passed away on a Tuesday in March. The weekend before, we’d had an especially good time together with Leslie. And that Monday evening, my neighbor came over to watch a show. James sat with us for a while, but he left early and was already asleep when I joined him later.
The next morning, he left for work without me seeing him. Whether he kissed me goodbye while I slept, I’ll never know. I had a hair appointment with the woman across the street. I was sitting in a chair in her basement when I heard rapid footsteps coming down the stairs. I turned to see my brother, Paul, who was a construction worker with James. He just looked at me and said, “Cathy, we have to go.”
I remember him pulling me out of the chair, and driving to the hospital. My first words were, “How bad?”
He just squeezed my hand.
When we arrived at the ER, the other construction workers were there. It was hard for them to look at me–and that’s when I knew.
James had been in an accident on the construction site. Winds were 50 mph-plus that day, and a wall he was working on had collapsed. To avoid being hit, James had jumped off the wall and landed on his back. When the wall fell, a piece of cinder block hit him in the chest, cracking a rib and severing his aorta.
The coroner said that he died instantly.
How Emotions Played Into My Money Decisions
When you’re the widowed mother of a 9-month-old baby, life becomes hazy. Since James died on the job, I was able to receive workman’s comp until I remarried (Leslie was entitled to the payments until she was 18), as well as Social Security payments for both myself and Leslie.
The life insurance policy was a modest amount, but in the ‘80s, it was worth a bit more than it would be today. It wasn’t a fortune, by any means.
For me, though, the combination of workman’s comp, Social Security and life insurance gave me options, like being able to work part-time instead of full-time at the type of jobs best suited for a single parent. As a nurse, I’d worked days and nights–sometimes 12 hours at a time. The money that we received allowed me to work part-time instead of full-time, and I could take my time finding jobs that were more flexible and better suited for a now-single parent.
Just a few weeks after James’ death, a meeting was set up for me with a financial expert, my father, father-in-law, brother-in-law and our accountant to help me decide what to do with the insurance money. Back then, interest rates were high, and the goal from their perspective was to make the money grow.
I was an empty presence in that meeting. My heart just wasn’t into the idea of making money off money that, to me, represented James.
After the meeting, my father, who knew that I lacked concentration, wrote me a letter—one that I have to this day—explaining the different ways that the funds could be invested and the benefits and risks of each.
I couldn’t invest the money then, and I never did later. Instead, I put it in a money market account, where it earned a healthy interest rate for years. When I remarried, my new husband and I merged our assets. Eventually, some of it was used to help fund Leslie’s college tuition.
Although I never invested the money to its fullest potential, there’s no doubt that it represented security to me, which I wouldn’t have had otherwise. In short, the insurance money was my safety net—a quiet presence, but a much-needed one.
Despite everything, I will always remember thinking: If James hadn’t pushed to set this up …
In the end, it turned out that I was incredibly lucky that my husband understood the importance of providing that safety net, even though he never thought we’d need to use it. Once again, James was a step ahead of me … providing that lifeboat in a sea of uncertainty.
Leslie and I couldn’t be more thankful.
*All names have been changed
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