Muddling Through

Catherine Horiuchi

DESPITE MY independent nature, I called family and friends after my injury. I thanked them for what they’d already done following my husband’s death—and requested additional, more intensive support.

One aunt, a government employee, arranged to work for a week at a nearby federal building. My sister-in-law also came for a week, and a cousin who is a nurse volunteered, too. A professional colleague parked her RV in the driveway and brought along her friendly pooch. Gaps between out-of-town guests were filled by neighbors and friends, as well as parents of our girls’ baton-twirling team.

For two months, I rotated between medical appointments, reworking the family budget, paying routine bills, learning about my spouse’s finances, and filling out the paperwork required as his executor and successor trustee. I dealt with medical providers and insurers, handling my own bills along with those left by my spouse. I developed a budget with one-, two- and five-year projections.

The most optimistic timelines for recovery came and went without noticeable improvement in my mobility. I could work remotely, but it was obvious that I couldn’t easily fulfill my committee and teaching responsibilities. My dean was hesitant about the work strategies I suggested. Rather than push back, I agreed to a few weeks of medical leave, which turned into six months of short-term disability.

Our teenagers’ school attendance and grades careened between sketchy and cringeworthy. I worked with school administrators, as they guided our three children. Meanwhile, I struggled to find well-regarded counselors with experience in handling teens coping with grief. Paying this expense is a new line in our budget for 2020.

My spouse and I split family expenses, so I only knew half of what charges to expect. My half of the bills I put on autopay, but not his. It’s easy to autopay for things you don’t use. There’s no sensation of spending the money, unless you closely review monthly statements. Every time I pay a bill, I ponder how much we use the service and compare the cost to something else I might be able to buy.

I also considered whether cutting back might result in meaningful amounts, which could then be used to rebuild our rainy-day savings. Continuing to save—or at least thinking about saving—helped me to focus on the future at a time that required seemingly reckless overspending. Every dollar saved was a dollar sent forward. Acute grief shortens perspective. “What do I need to do today, before the kids come home from school?” Saving lets me look beyond the unbearable present to a future that’s unclear but promising.

The bereaved are considered indecisive. But when you don’t know how you feel or what you want, beyond a return to your unattainable pre-bereaved state, every decision has aspects to it that didn’t exist before. Do I cancel Netflix, since we no longer sit on the sofa after the kids go to bed and watch a movie together? Do I drop the special cable sports package, since no one here watches that particular team anymore? Or do I leave the TV on anyway, to cover the silence in the middle of our family?

I will eventually drop many recurring expenses, but not yet. This has made the year of my husband’s death more expensive, but grief works that way and I have a rainy-day fund to cover this justifiable indulgence. It will look like I am making serious progress when, in the months ahead, I follow through on my resolution to get rid of things we won’t use.

Here are three takeaways from this period:

  1. Your rainy-day fund was built for this moment. Spend without regret.
  2. There are some trustworthy people who are helpful, while others seem to think the bereaved are fair game. Keep your credit cards and checkbook away from the latter. If you can’t tell these two groups apart, put away your credit cards and your checkbook until your good judgment returns.
  3. While the hourly pay for a gig job or consulting may be much higher than that for regular employment, calculate the value of benefits you’re giving up. If you’re out of work for six months, what kind of disability coverage would you have? How will you pay for what you need? Our society has many laws in place that protect and benefit ordinary employees of traditional workplaces. Contract employees aren’t nearly so fortunate.

Catherine Horiuchi is an associate professor in the University of San Francisco’s School of Management, where she teaches graduate courses in public policy, public finance and government technology. This is the fourth article in a series. Catherine’s three earlier articles were At the EndThe Aftermath and When It Rains.

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