I learned, at a fairly young age, that life can change as quickly as it takes a heart to beat.
It was the day before Thanksgiving, 1973, when my father suffered a heart attack. He was 56 and I was 8. As the sole breadwinner, I am sure all the worries he had about caring for his wife and seven kids (four of whom were minors) were pinging in his head, keeping time with his rapid pulse rate.
Thankfully, after several weeks in the hospital, he was allowed to come home in time for Christmas. It was a gift; but frankly, the anxiety over his health issues would haunt me throughout his lifetime. Fortunately, he lived into his late eighties; but having no way of knowing that he would be blessed with longevity, I began the egg-shell walk that would span decades.
It took me well into my adulthood before my fears eased up a bit. Perhaps experiencing milestones that I worried might never come, like having my father walk me down the aisle, allowed me to exhale.
And now, at the age of 51, I think I have finally figured out a few things about that experience and how it shaped me and how it affects my interactions with clients.
I guess I’m a slow learner.
Discovering the up-side to this down-side has become most apparent in my profession. It has influenced how I relate to others. When clients come to me with their fears – real or imagined; likely or unlikely – their discomfort pulses in my stomach and I want to help them make it stop.
Though it has taken me some time to realize this, I fall into the pattern that my father had silently taught me.
He set about eliminating known threats and stresses that could undo him. He did it without so much as an eye-blink. He was methodical and the message was powerful: Control what you can; prepare in advance for what you can and then do your best not to dwell. Pay attention to new information that can change a situation and adjust accordingly, but don’t fixate.
Financial plans are all about that. It gives me great comfort to take someone’s worries and systematically address what changes need to be made – save more, work longer, spend less, down size, work part time, start a small business … the list goes on. I like giving them options – it puts the control back in their hands.
Even when the news isn’t as ideal as I would like, there is a sense of relief that comes from taking an honest look at a difficult situation and then making a plan. Clients always feel better.
Sometimes, though, there is no “better” to a situation. Over the years, I have helped clients get their affairs in order as the end of life approached. I have ensured that heirs quickly received proceeds from IRA accounts; I have even brought paperwork to wakes and funerals so that out of town family members could sign what they needed to and I could explain things in person. No amount of apologizing could ever make me feel like anything less than the grim reaper.
Eleven years after my father’s death, my mother passed away. The job I had performed for many clients now fell in my lap. There was no “me” to make it all go away. I moved slowly, though I knew what I was doing. It was as if dividing my mother’s assets was the final burial that I simply wasn’t ready for.
Thankfully, my siblings showed great understanding and realized that I was struggling with this morbid task. They were more patient with me than I was with myself.
No matter how many times I have walked into a situation like this for a client, I am affected. I can feel their sadness and uncertainty; and I think they know it. Never once have I been met with anything but relief; they don’t want to have to worry about one more thing.
After years of doing this for others, I finally see the gift I am able to give is more valuable than any inheritance: it is peace of mind that they are free to focus where they need to — on the more pressing matters of the heart.