You can prevent these three widow nightmares
By Susan Zimmerman
Mindful Asset Programs
Every time I'm at a beach, I picture three images that came from a client. They were shared with me by a widow who lost her husband nearly 12 years ago. Her dreams still stand out vividly in my mind. Initially, however, her dreams were literally nightmares. She's given me permission to share them, along with my impressions of what they can teach us.
The widow's nightmares can teach us to be continued mega-fans of adequate life insurance. They remind us that there really is such a thing as an "uninsurable" person, which helps us persevere in recommending appropriate life insurance when clients are still healthy. They teach us that many couples have unresolved financial conflicts, even "till death do us part." These true nightmares empower us to speak with courage as we raise uneasy issues for our clients so that financial solutions are in place for them when needed.
I'll call this couple June and August. June's husband died in August that year and I'm writing this part of their story in June. They had been married nearly 40 years when August was diagnosed with cancer. He died nine months after the diagnosis.
June and August had very different habits and outlooks about money. She was very frugal; he loved to spend on everything from the latest stereo systems to new cars. He'd spent a fortune on various automobiles during his lifetime, but always had a special love for Cadillacs. This had been a constant source of frustration to June throughout their marriage, and she worried about their late start in saving for retirement. When they initially began working with our firm regarding financial planning, they were in their mid-50s. Both were uninsurable due to smoking-related health issues. They'd never had a financial advisor. The bulk of their life insurance was through their employer-sponsored group plans.
In the first days and weeks of June's widowhood, she shared her three most vivid nightmares with me. Perhaps they will strike you the same way as you think about widows or widowers with whom you have worked. I believe the themes in these nightmares have remarkable universal application.
Nightmare No. 1: The missing purse. June's first nightmare was a recurring one within the first few days after August's death. Its recurrence was in part what made it so vivid -- the sheer repetition of the theme. In the dream, June found herself in various settings, but often at home. In this nightmarish dream, she'd lost her purse. She searched and searched in many places for it, but could never find it. When June awoke, she felt anxious and afraid.
Nightmare No. 2: The lost phone. June's second nightmare was also a recurring one that seemed to replace the first one. She was at home and her phone was ringing. In the dream, she somehow knew it was August calling, but she could never find the phone to answer it. Upon awakening, June recalled feeling extremely frustrated by the inability to receive communication from August.
Nightmare No. 3: The sunken Cadillac. June's third nightmare came several weeks after August's death. In this dream, she drove August's Cadillac into the ocean. She escaped from the car easily and watched it sink down into the water. She wasn't sure if it had been an accident or purposeful event, but I bet you have an opinion about that. Her initial feeling was worry about whether August would find out she'd sunk the car. She was fearful of his potential anger, but in discussing it, she also felt a sense of relief to be rid of it.
Transforming the unconscious nightmares into conscious dreams
How can you use June's dreams to help your clients implement needed insurance and savings plans? First, let's translate their meaning as briefly as possible to set the stage for meaningful dialog with clients. You don't have to be a therapist or dream analyst to pick up on the obvious themes represented in June's three nightmares. June's dreams were told to me simply because I'd asked if she was getting adequate rest. Keep in mind that dreams often are the unconscious mind's way of working out conflict or problems.
Looking back at June's early days as a widow and connecting the dots of her nightmares, I see the power of planning and compassion at work. Although June and August were not insurable when they began their planning, they did increase their retirement savings and stuck with a diversified asset allocation plan that performed very well in the years before his death. Thank goodness they had that -- and June's frugality -- going for them.
Interpretation and transformation
June's first nightmare, "The missing purse," symbolized her initial general uncertainty about managing her financial life alone as a widow. The "purse strings" had been controlled by August throughout their marriage and June had felt powerless with regards to his spending habits. After we met with her and reviewed the updated income plan based on their combined retirement resources and life insurance, this recurring nightmare stopped entirely. Income and cash flow planning gave her great peace of mind. Even though that was the role she had always played for them as a couple, it took on a different significance when she became widowed.
June's frugal style and the growth of funds in their plans served her well. She even jumped up from her chair during our meeting to announce that she was excited to be "cheap" just for fun. June expressed a strong desire to leave money for their children. This most likely would not have been possible, given August's spending patterns. Realizing and sharing her individual personal goals was very empowering to June. It transformed the nightmare of financial insecurity (the missing purse) into the realized dream of financial security and control.
June's second nightmare, "The lost phone," symbolized her lost communication with August. It also was the beginning of her acceptance of having to make her own decisions without his direction and influence. This nightmare also stopped after the income plan meeting.
"The lost phone" nightmare transformed into what we renamed, "the new phone." Can you guess who's communicating on the new phone? That's right, it's the trusted advisor talking and listening to the client. Of course we can't replace a beloved lost spouse, but as advisors, we do help fill the communication void in financial decisions. A little extra communication from you helps them trust your support and gain comfort in managing their money matters.
In June's third nightmare, "The sunken Cadillac," the car symbolized her lifetime of financial powerlessness. Driving it into the ocean in her dream helped June realize she did have opinions about what she wanted and didn't want financially. It helped her find her voice and her unique financial identity as an individual. She was able to process her unresolved money issues with August. Although the car had been important to him, to her it was a burden. June wasn't accustomed to being heard about important financial decisions, which had eroded her confidence in her natural abilities.
This nightmare of powerlessness transformed into the dream of financial empowerment. June moved from confusion to clarity as she continued navigating through her grief and her changed life. From here, she was able to give herself permission to define her own financial goals.
Are you wondering about the Cadillac? Within a few weeks of that nightmare, June decided to sell the car. The dream helped her realize she wasn't obligated to keep it. She bought a used mid-sized car with very few miles on it, which she still drives today.
Universal dreams and themes
The three meanings of the widow's nightmares address some common experiences of grieving spouses. These are the preparedness themes with which you help clients the most:
1. Finding security and managing finances as a single person (the purse)
2. Establishing supportive communication to talk through decisions (the phone)
3. Discovering their financial identity and style absent their spouse (the car)
To advise toward favoring prevention, remember the three symbols in June's nightmares. Can you visualize the car with a phone and purse in it sinking into the ocean? If so, then you'll remember the financial difficulties you're working to prevent for your clients. You'll have a much easier time helping clients address difficult issues and implementing the plans they need to have in place. Your counsel gives your clients the three powerful benefits of financial security, supportive communication, and confidence in their abilities. That's the gift of good financial dreams.
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