By Bill Coffin
On January 1, 2009, my brother Tom committed suicide. For much of 2008, he was an emotional wreck, and his wildly oscillating behavior put the entire family through the wringer — but none more so than his wife and kids. By October of 2008, I finally saw Tom for the first time in many months, and he looked terrible. He had been out of work for a while. He was fighting a lot with his wife. He had gained a lot of weight, and his complexion was pasty. But by November, good news came in. His mood had lightened considerably. He said he had some really promising job prospects in the pipeline, he was working things out at home, and he felt that, at last, things had finally begun to turn around for him. I was immensely relieved.
Of course, things had not turned around. He had merely entered the happy phase that the suicidal often enter when they have committed to their course of action. They realize that their pain is indeed going to come to an end, and so their mood lifts, even though something terrible is about to happen. I spoke with Tom on New Year’s Eve, as I always did. He sounded great. We joked on the phone. He was like his old self. A few hours later, when everybody had gone to bed, he went down into his basement, looped a noose around his neck, drank enough to pass out, and strangled himself. He did not leave a note. He did leave behind a folder on his computer entitled “Getting Prepared,” which showed that he had been researching ways to kill himself painlessly, or in ways that looked accidental, for a while. This was no snap decision.
I lost almost all of 2009 to an emotional fog. I immediately began seeing a grief counselor. I knew that it would take me the better part of a year to put myself back together again, and I was right. Immediately seeking help was a huge factor in that. That I did it with my wife by my side all the way was another huge factor. She was grieving, too. And together, we figured out how to heal from this.
You don’t “get over” somebody’s death, and certainly not a death by suicide. You learn to live with it. My grief counselor likened the suffering of this kind to launching a boat from the beach. At first, the waves are so big they threaten to overturn your boat. But the farther you get away from the shore, the smaller the waves feel, and the more regular their intervals. There is the occasional rogue wave that almost swamps you, but you are adept at sailing at that point, and you know what to expect and how to recover. The boat is you. The ocean is your grief. The distance from the shore is time.
I have shared that specific analogy with a number of people since Tom died, especially those who have experienced a suicide and sought out my advice because they knew that I had been there, and I was open about my experience. I wrote about losing Tom just a few months after he died, on the pages of Risk Management magazine, in a piece that was fairly raw, emotionally. I have written about this topic twice here at National Underwriter. One was a feature on how the life insurance industry could be doing more to aid suicide prevention. It would be a great business move, and it would certainly fulfill the industry’s long-standing tradition of charity. Another was an editorial about how A.J. Moore, the son of Sheryl J. Moore — an outstanding producer and frequent contributor to both LifeHealthPro and ProducersWeb — took his own life after being bullied relentlessly by his schoolmates. And now I’m writing about it again, after the five-year anniversary of Tom’s death.
Why? Why bring this up again? I have thought about that quite a bit. And with time comes perspective. There is one story about my grieving process over Tom I have never shared before (outside of a few close friends and family) that to me, speaks to both the grieving process and the need to prepare one’s family for the untimely loss of a loved one. We need the ones we love to leave something of themselves behind when they go. Some prepare adequately. Others do not. Both courses of action have consequences. My hope is that my story might help you have a more productive conversation with your clients, especially those who don’t quite get the reason why insuring their own lives is not just a luxury or a nice-to-have, but part of the fundamental duty we all have to care as much as possible for the ones we love. Or maybe it’ll help you have a more productive conversation with your own friends and family.
Anyway. this story is called Finding Meester. Thanks in advance for reading it.
Even if you have not played World of Warcraft, you probably know somebody who has played it, or know somebody whose kids have played it, or read a news story about it, or, failing those things, stopped reading this article to Google it. It is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. In fact, it is the MMORPG. No other game of its kind has managed to even come close to the success Warcraft has enjoyed. It’s beginning to wane now, but at its peak, the game had some 12 million players, each paying not just for the game itself, but also a monthly fee to log in to its servers. Being a game you play over the Internet with a few million of your closest friends, getting into Warcraft is not something one does casually.
The game itself is basically a computerized version of Dungeons & Dragons. You create a fantasy character like a human or an elf or a troll and you pick an occupation — warrior, mage, that sort of thing — and you wander the game’s massive countryside completing quests, killing monsters and looting their treasure. Sometimes you can play against other players, sometimes you can play alongside them. The game is really meant to be a social experience, and you truly cannot get the most out of playing the game by playing it alone.
Tom and I played with a close mutual friend of ours, who was also living in Atlanta. The three of us formed a little gaming group of our own, so when we were playing the game — which we did often — we were usually playing it with each other. That on its own made for a great way to stay in touch, as we usually chatted about all kinds of non-game things while we were logged in. Sports, politics, whatever. Sometimes, we logged in and kept our characters parked in a safe haven, just so we could talk with each other. Eventually, the game became as much our own little social network as a form of mutual entertainment.
I mention this because for a long time, I saw Tom’s avatar in Warcraft — a troll named Meester — more than I saw Tom himself. I’d log into the game and look for Meester, because Meester was Tom and Tom was Meester. It’s strange to have such an imaginary appearance be a stand-in for a real-life loved one, but that’s life in the 21st century, I suppose.
When Tom died, he left no note. This is not uncommon for suicides, actually. But he also left not much of anything else. His joblessness and what I can only imagine was long-standing financial difficulty had driven his family into a very deep hole. He certainly had no life insurance in effect, which would have been extremely useful. Most of his possessions had been sold off over time, so I can’t imagine he even left much for his wife and kids to hang on to. In many ways, to me it felt like Tom didn’t die as much as he simply disappeared. Just before I laid the first shovelful of dirt on what would become the resting place for his remains, I laid my fingers on the paper box that held his ashes. I have been to more funerals than I care to remember. I have attended many wakes. I am used to seeing the departed, even in closed-casket affairs where there is only a photo to look upon. This was different. This was not Tom. This was a box with what used to be Tom. And it all had an alien feel to it. Frankly, it made me question my long-held desire to be cremated, and those ashes scattered at sea.
I spoke at my brother’s funeral service in Atlanta. I told some of my favorite stories about him, in part because they were funny and we all wanted to remember Tom for something good rather than for the cause of his death. And I did it because I am a storyteller by trade. I love storytelling for the magic it brings; when you tell a good story, it lives on in the memory of those who enjoyed it, and it lives on even further when people pass it along, and along, and along again.
And yet, my stories of Tom, and the memories that drove them, were not enough. Perhaps it is because of the way in which he died, or perhaps because I never thought I’d help bury one of my brothers, but for whatever reason, I needed some kind of reminder that Tom had been. That is how I fixated on his Warcraft character, Meester.
I thought that would be the end of it. I knew where Meester was. I knew where a little piece of Tom was. And that should have been enough. But it wasn’t. Soon I felt like I needed to have possession of the character, even though it was not a real, physical thing. I wanted to make sure that Meester was safe and sound, which meant porting the character to my own Warcraft account. That character had suddenly become very precious to me.
I contacted Tom’s wife to make sure it was alright; and she graciously agreed. To be honest, she was dealing with far, far bigger problems than I was. Her fortitude, and the ability with which she has served her family since then is nothing less than a testament to her strength.
The next step was the actual character transfer process. You must understand that World of Warcraft has created its own shadow economy. People get so nuts playing this game that if they want more loot or gold for their character, they will actually pay other people to “farm” such stuff and then give it to their character, for a price. This is illegal within the game, but people do this and all kinds of other dodgy stuff with their accounts, anyway. Blizzard Entertainment — the company that publishes and runs World of Warcraft — works nonstop to keep this kind of thing in check. They also have in place very specific rules for getting a dead person’s account transferred over to you.
I followed the rules to the letter. I got a copy of Tom’s death certificate from Georgia. I sent a copy of that plus other documents to Blizzard, to justify the transfer of Tom’s account over to my own. All I needed was Tom’s login and password. And those, I did not have.
More importantly, Blizzard could not give them to me. Account information is the single most valuable resource Blizzard handles. They simply cannot afford to let a customers’ account info out into the open because other players might take over the accounts and plunder them. I understood that, but I also felt that at this point, I had come too far to be stopped now.
Read more: Bullied to Death: A.J. Betts (1997-2013)
I called Blizzard’s customer service desk, which is staffed by young-sounding people whom I am sure deal with a lot of really rude 15-year-olds wondering why the hell their account got suspended, or why they got reported for repugnant behavior in-game, or whatever other problems plague the conscience of high-strung gamers for whom Warcraft is the primary life activity. So with that in mind, I tried to be as nice and as polite and as calm as possible as I explained to the voice on the other end of the line who my brother was, how our playing together in Warcraft was how we stayed in touch, how he died recently, how I wanted to take control of his character for reasons that didn’t even fully make sense to me, and how I needed information that Blizzard was unable to give me. Could they help?
I had this conversation with three different customer service people. They were all, without exception, extremely kind, caring and compassionate. They all wanted to help. They all were forbidden from giving me the actual account information. I was so upset and emotional when I made these calls that it was not until the third time I went through this conversation that I realized that the people I was talking to were actually giving me the information I needed. In each phone call, the person on the other end of the line said they could not give me Tom’s login and password, which they noted just happened to be his first initial-last name, and his hometown.
Tom had been an IT consultant who, as a kid, managed to perform the kind of exploratory hacking that in a post-9/11 environment would have resulted in a visit from men in dark suits and earpieces. How in blue blazes he let his password and login be the most rudimentary personal information about himself, I will never, ever know. It has occurred to me that maybe he changed it so somebody could gain access to his account. Maybe that was why he logged in before he died, to change his account info. That would make a lot more sense than Tom tooling around in the world’s most heavily played — and heavily hacked — game with the security information equivalent of setting your luggage combination to 1234.
I thanked the third customer service rep profusely. Had this been a face-to-face conversation, I would have hugged her as tears streamed from my eyes. But since I could not do this, I said that I hoped the conversation was being recorded, and that I know Blizzard must maintain proper security for all of their customers. I said that in this case, they also provided me with the kind of human contact that knew what purpose those rules were meant to fulfill, and how to help me anyway. It meant the world to me, that conversation. It still does. It was one of the kindest things anybody has ever done for me. Unfortunately, I never did get the rep's name.
That night, I logged into Warcraft with trembling fingers. I input what Tom’s info must be, and hit return.
I was in.
I played Warcraft for about a year after that, using a different character of my own. It wasn’t the same, though. I found a new group of people to play with, and made some very nice friends doing it. But my reasons for playing were different, and at some point in the summer of 2010, I realized that I had not logged in for a while. At some point later that year, I realized I probably would never log in again. And so far, I have been right. I miss Warcraft; it is an enormously fun game. But I just can't go back to it for reasons well beyond the game itself.
After Tom died, the friend with whom Tom and I played Warcraft contacted a service that would make a custom statuette of any Warcraft character. He had one made of Meester, and that statuette still sits on his desk to this day. I thought about doing the same, and making something physical out of all of this. But every time my finger hovered over the Buy button, I hesitated. I didn’t need something to be there forever, I realized. I just needed something to be there when I needed something to be there. And as time went on, as my grief over Tom lessened — as my boat got far out of sight of land, as it were — I realized I had all the reminders of Tom that I needed. I think that is why, once I had Meester in my possession, my obsession over it ceased almost instantly.
When I speak to people who sell life insurance for a living, I like to ask them why they do it. Very few people grow up wanting to sell insurance of any kind. Many of those who do, I have found, were born into the family business. You can go to school for this, but you certainly don’t have to, and many of the most successful producers I have met never trained formally to sell insurance before they took the job. And yet, many of these same people look upon their work less as a job and more as a calling. Why?
Usually, it has something to do with delivering that first claims check. It is one thing to sell people on life insurance. It is another thing entirely to deliver that insurance to a grieving family in need. A lot of people become believers at that point, which probably accounts for recent survey findings I helped produce that show how producers who make it past the first few years in this business not only never leave it, they rarely retire, either.
That’s an amazing thing to me. I can’t imagine there are a lot of occupations like that, and it makes this one special. Life insurance is held up by people outside of the industry as an archetypically dull career, but that so critically misses what this line of work is all about. You buy life insurance for one reason and one reason only, really: because you love somebody. And yeah, selling life insurance is about putting bread on your own table. But it is also about making sure that the love of those who have passed on makes its way into the hearts and into the hands of those they have left behind. What a noble calling that is. And a quiet kind of nobility, too. My favorite kind.
Tom left virtually nothing behind to remind the people he left that he loved them. That is the awful nature of suicide, and its inherent selfishness. Those who take their own lives are in such pain that they come to the conclusion that it is preferable to be dead than to be alive. To be apart from one’s spouse, one’s kids, one’s parents, one’s friends, one’s colleagues. None of them matter more than one’s own pain, and the need to escape it. That is why suicide is so hard to survive. It took me a year of pretty much constant effort. And still, there are waves that rock my boat. There always will be. It would have been easier if Tom had left something, anything behind. He did, but I had to go looking to find it. And for me, that search proved to be therapeutic. I don’t know if that’s what Tom intended. And I don’t need to, anymore. I’m just grateful it was there for me. I’m grateful I survived.
I shared this story with you because when I speak with producers, one of the most common problems they encounter, after prospecting, is how to get their customers to commit to purchasing life insurance. Life insurance is so often seen as something that nobody really needs. You aren’t forced to buy it, as you are with auto insurance or homeowner’s insurance. Depending on where you work, you might have some group life insurance that comes to you as a benefit. A free $100,000 life policy sounds like a lot of money when you a) don’t think you are going to die any time soon and b) don’t have to pay the premiums for it. Life insurance is something that is not bought, people say. It is sold.
And what a hard sell it can be. Nobody likes to imagine that they are going to die, and buying life insurance requires one to accept that fact. Making matters worse is that the people who need it the most — younger clients, perhaps recently with a new house, or recently married, or starting a family — have so much to live for that it becomes easy to ignore the inevitable conclusion to all of that. But inevitable, it is. And it comes at a time of its own design. Sometimes it comes as a relief. Sometimes it comes as a thief in the night. Sometimes, it comes after a decision the rest of us can never fully understand.
But it comes for us all, this thing called death. I often joke that perhaps the life and health industry’s sales problems are that it deals in euphemisms: we really should call health insurance “life insurance,” and we really should call life insurance “death insurance.” But since I doubt we’ll ever make that leap, the next best thing we can do is to be honest with ourselves and with one’s clients to get them to understand, using all of the compassion and empathy at our disposal, that our lives will end someday. We will be survived by those whom we love, and who love us in return. The very best thing we can do is to give those people the reminder that even when we cannot be there for them, they are still in our thoughts.
Life insurance is a gift of love, indeed, no different in many ways than the other things our lost friends and family leave behind for us. When my father died in 2010 — I will forever believe that his life’s end was hastened by his inability to reconcile with his son’s suicide — my stepmother gave to me a railroad watch that had been passed down through the generations, and which my father had intended to go to me. It is worth quite a bit of money, but I will never part with it because it is far more valuable to me as a reminder of my father — a man with whom I had little in common, with whom I still have many unresolved issues, and with whom I spent little time. But at the very least, he made sure that when he was gone, he would be able to tell me one more time that whatever else had happened, he loved me. Tom never did such a thing.
So I guess the question we all must answer comes down to this: whether it is through life insurance or something else, how important is it to us that we tell those we love that we love them? And how important is it that we make sure we get to tell them that one last time, when it matters the most? I doubt very many people would say such a thing is not important to them. The challenge, then, is to get them to live up to that. Because otherwise, they’re just challenging those they leave behind to find their own reminders. They are challenging them to find Meester. And nobody should ever have to do that.