Lessons Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father

Lessons Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father

A few days ago I got home from my trip to New York for my Dad’s Memorial. I ended up spending a total of 10 days on Long Island to help my Dad’s wife (my stepmom) deal with everything that needs to be handled when someone dies, especially when it is sudden and unexpected, and to provide her with some emotional support.

There are so many things I want to share…

I really appreciate all of the kind messages and condolences that so many of you made when I posted the picture of my Dad and I dancing at my wedding and shared about his passing. Thank you.

I’m so grateful for my friends and family who have called to check in and sent cards.

And what I most want to share is what a huge learning and growth experience the unexpected and sudden loss of my father has been.

As a way to help me process this, I’ve decided to take on a personal challenge: To share one of my lessons learned each day for the next 10 days… until February 15, my Dad’s birthday.

So here goes…

 

Lesson #1 – Treasure and Appreciate The Ones You Love

Even though I love and adore my husband Adam, over the course of our 11+ year marriage, there have been times when I’ve been a bitch, when I haven’t shown up as my best self in our marriage, when I complain and focus on things that really aren’t important, when I’m too bossy and controlling… the list could go on and on – Thank god he loves me so much!

Seeing and experiencing my stepmom’s utter grief, sadness and devastation on the sudden loss of her beloved husband of 25 years was such a slap-in-the-face / wake-up call for me. My Mom died at 62. My Dad died at 75. My husband just turned 60.

The day after I got the call from stepmom that she found my Dad dead on the bathroom floor, I went to CVS to buy her a sympathy card and remembered that I hadn’t yet bought Adam a card for his 60th birthday that was a few days away.

Lessons Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father

It was so surreal to buy these 2 cards at the same time:

Happy Birthday to My Husband
In The Loss of Your Husband

Since then I’ve been making such a conscious effort to be more loving and kind to my husband. To be more patient and appreciative. To not be a bitch. To not take him for granted…

…Life goes by fast and things can change on a dime.

Treasure and appreciate the ones you love.


Lesson #2 – Name a Beneficiary on Your Accounts

Even though my Dad was a very intelligent and well educated man… and he could be so detail oriented and meticulous about certain things… He really missed the ball with some basics.

While he had a will that left everything to his wife of 25 years, he neglected to put her as the beneficiary on the vast majority of the financial accounts that were in his name only (like his different retirement accounts, his investment accounts, etc.).

So instead of it being simple for her to quickly and easily access the funds, make decisions about the accounts, etc….

She now has to wait for weeks while the will is in probate and has to deal with stuff like this…

“Thank you for sending us the death certificate. We will use this to freeze the account and label the account as deceased. In addition to the death certificate, we will need you to provide a copy of the Letters of Testamentary/Court ordered document listing you as the executor of the estate. Since there was no beneficiary on file for his account, we will need to open an Estate account which requires some additional steps that we can go over later.”

Name a Beneficiary on Your Accounts

If my Dad were alive right now I’d use the Sports Center voice and be like, “Come on man.”

YOUR ACTION ITEM:

(I bet you didn’t expect an action item when you started reading this post… Sorry, I can’t help myself )

*** In the next week review all of your financial accounts and make sure you have someone named as a beneficiary. ***

This might be one of the very best Valentine’s Day presents you could give the ones you love.


Lesson #3 – Do What Makes You Happy When You’re Sad… Even If You Don’t Feel like It

When I finally got home after 10 long days in New York for my Dad’s memorial and helping my stepmom deal, I was completely spent. It didn’t help that I basically pulled an all-nighter before I left their house early that morning for my flight back to California.

Adam picked me up at the airport that Saturday and when I walked into our house at 4pm all I wanted to do was crawl into bed, curl up in a ball and go to sleep…

… So I did, even though we had tickets to see Railroad Earth, a fun upbeat band I love that night at the UC Theater in Berkeley AND I took the early flight out of New York to get back home in time to go to the show.

A few hours later Adam gently woke me, “Love it’s after 7, it’s time to get up and have dinner and go to the show.”

Me in super grumpy voice, “I’m tired. I’m in a bad mood. I don’t feel like going.” I rolled over and pulled the covers over my head.

Adam left the room and I tried to fall back asleep. That didn’t happen.

In part because Adam had sneakily started playing “Take Good Care” the new album that I’m addicted to by my #1 favorite band The Revivalists.

As I lay there listening to my favorite music, my bad mood started to lessen a wee bit. I still didn’t feel like going out, but I decided to at least get up and take a shower and eat dinner. I was hungry.

In the shower I remembered the advice our friends Janna & Gabriel gave us before our wedding when we were asking happily married couples we know “What’s the secret to a happy marriage?”

They said “Just go out. Go out together, go out individually, go out with friends. Just go out. We see how happy you both are when you’re out enjoying live music. Just go out.”

So when I got out of the shower, instead of putting on sweat pants, I put on going out clothes…

…and even though I was still in a bad mood and not excited about it, I went out.

Lesson #3 – Do What Makes You Happy When You’re Sad… Even If You Don’t Feel like ItRight after Adam & I walked into the show we ran into Maggie & Tim, dear long-time friends we know through our mutual love of music. They had seen my FB post about the passing of my Dad and immediately gave me bug hugs and said kind words. I started feeling better.

Then Adam and I made our way down to the floor. The first set had already started and the floor looked packed, but front and center is where I like to be…

…And since one of my superpowers is being able to find great spots up front at shows, I grabbed Adam’s hand and into the crowd we went.

Sure enough, my superpower didn’t let me down. We got a great spot and started dancing and enjoying the show. Within 5 minutes I looked at Adam and said with a big smile “I’m in a good mood now.”

#3 Lesson Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father: Do what makes you happy when you’re sad… Even if you don’t feel like it


Lesson #4 – Go the Extra Mile to Resolve Family Conflicts

Life Lesson Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father: Go the extra mile to resolve family conflictsAs an adult there were 2 periods in my life when my father and I were not in communication. The first one lasted for 9 years and the second one for 3 years.

I don’t want to share the details and air the family laundry. I own up to the mistakes I made and the things I could have done better… But let’s just say the issues that caused the conflicts are not the kinds of things about which you’d believe would have a father stop talking to his daughter.

Now that my Dad is gone, I’m so grateful that I made the extra effort (x 10) so that…

1) We reconciled after the first falling out and were on good terms when I got married and he attended my wedding.

2) We reconciled after the second falling out and had been on good terms for years when he passed. (The picture in this post was the first time I was welcomed to visit him at his home after the second reconciliation)

And I’m also so sad that not only is he gone now, but he was absent for 12 years of my life as an adult. There are so many things that he, we and I missed out on…

#4 Life Lesson Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father: Go the extra mile to resolve family conflicts

BONUS Lesson: Conflicts Happen. Resolve Them. Love Your Family.


Lesson #5 – Reach Out and Connect With Friends

Lesson Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father: Reach out and connect with friends (one of the best forms of self care)When I shared on FB that my father had died, in addition to condolences a bunch of friends also recommended “self care.”

I did that this weekend…

…thanks to connecting with what I really wanted and the Universe conspiring on my behalf to help pull everything together.

Backstory: Adam and I love to ski. It’s one of our shared passions so we have season passes to ski at Heavenly and Kirkwood in South Lake Tahoe and spend as much time as possible up there during ski season.

When I was still in NY on the 10 day trip for my Dad’s memorial and helping my stepmom deal, Adam and I talked about going to Tahoe this weekend – lots of new snow and we cancelled a planned ski weekend because we were in NY.

During that conversation I was like, “Sure, sounds good.”

But once I got home and actually had the time and space to start processing the loss of my father I realized that I didn’t want to go skiing this weekend. I wanted and needed girlfriend time…

…I’m so grateful that I got it in spades.

Thank you Gina for hosting the delicious and yummy Barcelona themed ladies in your house gathering. Love and appreciate you and so wonderful to connect with Kelly D, Maggie, Sharon, Tracy, Jan, Kiera, Brooke, Heather, Wendy, Molly, Chelsea and sweet Savannah.

Thank you Universe for working your magic for me, Kristin, Ruth, Deri and Michael Franti on Saturday night and then at Glide on Sunday.

Thank you Adam for realizing and understanding when I need my space. Happy you are getting your ski on in all that fresh pow-pow even if you need to shovel 3 feet of snow to get the car out 🙂

#5 Lesson Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father: Reach out and connect with friends (one of the best forms of self care)


Lesson #6 – Leverage Bereavement

Lesson Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father - Leverage BereavementI hope this doesn’t sound weird, but when a close family member dies, it’s like being given a “get out of jail free card” in the game Monopoly. People are extra nice to you and so understanding.

The key thing is you have to let people know what’s going on. Here are just a couple of examples:

=> I let my awesome bootcamp instructor Anna Melikidse Gunn know that she wouldn’t see me there at 6:30am at Lake Merritt because I was going to New York for my Dad’s memorial. She replied with heartfelt condolences and 2 week credit for next session.

=> My husband asked if I wanted him to come to New York with me for the memorial. Of course I wanted Adam to come, but he has a relatively new job and has been focused on saving up vacation days so I suggested he take a red-eye and just fly in for the weekend.

“Let me check and see if I have bereavement leave”

Duh… I hadn’t even thought of that! And wouldn’t you know, his company has a generous bereavement policy. I’m so grateful that we were able to travel out to NY together on Wednesday. It was so great to have him there and he was so helpful with figuring out some things on my Dad’s computers and other stuff.

=> Adam and I used frequent flyer miles to travel to NY for my Dad’s memorial. I decided to stay for a week and booked my flight home so I’d be back in time to celebrate my dear friend Johanna’s special birthday.

It was 2 hours before I was supposed to leave for the airport on Wednesday 1/30/19 to fly from JFK back to SFO when I realized I needed to spend more time in New York. Even though I made so much progress helping my stepmom figure things out, there was still so much more to do.

And I couldn’t even get the f***ing printer to work so that I could print out the spreadsheets I created for my stepmom of all the financial accounts, expense summaries, etc.

[Sidenote: My father was very computer savvy and happily handled EVERYTHING financial… from paying the bills to managing investments to doing his own taxes. His wife, on the other hand, has no interest in computers or email or smart phones.]

Sooo… I decided to extend my stay through Saturday and get home in time to see Railroad Earth at the UC Theater in Berkeley that night (see Lesson #3 – Do what makes you happy when you’re sad… Even if you don’t feel like it 🙂

I tried to change my flight online but it was a little confusing so I called customer service.

After a 90 minute wait I was connected to a wonderful American Airlines agent. I shared that my father had recently passed and I needed to extend my stay. Long story short, she extended her condolences, I provided her with the name and phone number of the funeral home, she verified and then redeposited my miles, booked me on the new flight I wanted and waived all fees.

#6 Lesson Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father – Leverage Bereavement


Lesson #7 – Get Your Legal Affairs in Order. Do it For Your Loved Ones.

Get your legal affairs in order. Do it for your loved ones.Here’s the deal… We’re all going to die. Some of us will die at a ripe old age surrounded by loved ones as we take our last breaths. Others will die suddenly and unexpectedly. Some of us will pass from a prolonged illness. However things pan out, you want to have your affairs in order before your time comes.

Now, I’m not an attorney (nor do I play one on TV 🙂 so I don’t dispense legal advice, but I can share my personal experiences…

#1 – I’m shocked and don’t understand how someone as intelligent and educated as my Dad would make the effort to do a will, but fall short on getting other key legal documents in place, such as an Advanced Medical Directive, Health Care Proxy and Power of Attorney.

Your Action Item: Get your important legal documents set up, some of the basics are…

  • Last Will and Testament
  • Advanced Medical Directive/Health Care Proxy
  • Power of Attorney


When Adam and I got married we used Legalzoom.com to set up these basic legal documents. We don’t have children and our needs were simple and straightforward.

If you have a more complex situation it’s worth the investment to get personalized legal support.

I’m thinking of 2 very close dear friends (you know who you are) that don’t have this handled yet… I’m committed to being your accountability partner to get this done. I understand that it can feel complicated and confusing. I also know you are totally capable of making it happen. And I’m here to support you (aka: kick your butt to get it done 🙂

#2 – Even though my Dad had a will that left everything to his wife, he neglected to name her as the beneficiary on the vast majority of his financial accounts. This easy step that he could have taken has made things so much more time-consuming and complicated than they needed to be. (See Lesson Learned #2)

Your Action Item: Name a beneficiary on your financial accounts

#3 – Do what my Grandpa did… I was talking to my uncle at my Dad’s memorial about all the stuff we were dealing with to help my stepmom figure everything out.

He listened and shared some kind words and then he said, “It’s so hard on the family when you lose a loved one, so I’ve already done what Grandpa did. Grandpa had a briefcase next to his desk with everything that we’d need to know when he passed to handle his affairs.”

If you knew my Grandpa, this would not be surprising, especially since he was 94 years old when he passed and he like things organized.

Your Action Item: Make it easy for your loved ones if you leave this world suddenly and unexpectedly.

Even though there were some things my Dad could have done better, he at least had a master file on his computer of all his usernames and passwords. And he had given my stepmom the main password to his computer (that she wrote down in short hand to maintain security – LOL!)

Here’s a great resource from my friends Nancy & Steve Juetten called the Life Goes On Road Map and it’s a super helpful way to do what my Grandpa did so that you can make sure you have everything in one place so that your loved ones can handle your affairs when you’re gone.

#7 Lesson Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father – Get your legal affairs in order. Do it for your loved ones.


Lesson #8 – If You Can… Do a Mitzvah

Lesson 8 If You Can… Do a MitzvahEven though things were good between me and my Dad and stepmom when he passed, there were times over the years when my relationship with them was either non-existent or challenging, to say the least.

So when I was getting ready to book my flight I told Adam that I was planning on staying in New York for a week… to not only attend my Dad’s memorial, but to also have time to help my stepmom deal with everything.

He was a bit surprised. So I shared my reasons why and then he said, “Sounds like you’re doing a mitzvah.”

(Mitzvah is hebrew for commandment or good deed)

Yeah, I was doing a mitzvah.

I didn’t want to spend a week on Long Island with my stepmom. I didn’t want to put my business and life on hold for a week. But I thought about my Dad and what would most honor him and make him proud.

So I booked my flight for a week… And even ended up extending my stay, because I could and it was the right thing to do.

And I’m so glad I did.

#8 Life Lesson Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father: If You Can… Do a Mitzvah


Lesson #9 – Put Yourself In Other People’s Shoes

Lesson 9 Put Yourself In Other People's ShoesIt was the Sunday after my Dad’s memorial and I was still in New York when my best friend from high school called to check in.

She’s familiar with the challenges and falling outs I’ve had with my dad and stepmom over the years, so after I gave her a full update she asked, “Michelle, how are you doing it?”

aka: Michelle, how are you not getting triggered and able to show up so fully for your dad’s wife when there were all those past issues?

I explained that it was easy… once I put myself in her shoes.

When I connected with how I would feel if I suddenly lost my husband and the trauma of what it would be like to find him dead on the bathroom floor…

…there was no space in my brain or heart for lingering negative feelings from past conflicts.

Instead I was filled up with empathy and compassion.

#9 Lesson Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father: Put Yourself In Other People’s Shoes


Lesson #10 – Focus on Gratitude and Appreciation

Lesson Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father: Focus on Gratitude and AppreciationToday is my Father’s birthday. If he was alive he would have turned 76 and right about now I’d be calling to sing him the “Swedish Birthday Song.”

(Backstory: I lived in Sweden for a year when I was an exchange student in high school… I fell in love with the country, the people and all things Swedish, so the special people in my life get serenaded in Swedish on their birthday 

Even though I’m so sad that he’s gone, I’m choosing to focus on having gratitude and appreciation.

=> I’m grateful my Dad didn’t suffer for months or years with a life-ending illness and was happily living his best life on his last day… I know this would have been his preference.


=> I’m grateful my Dad’s third wife Lindy took such good care of him and brought him so much joy for 25 years… Knowing that he was well cared for helped alleviate my angst, worry and Catholic guilt during the times we weren’t in communication.

=> I’m grateful my Dad and I reconciled for the second time and were on good terms when he died… And that I made the effort to visit him in New York whenever I could during that time. 

=> I’m grateful for my Dad, Mom and brother and that I had a happy childhood growing up.

=> I’m grateful my business is set up and the timing worked out so that I could basically put everything on hold and spend 10 days in New York for my Dad’s memorial and to help my stepmom deal.
I’m grateful for my life today. Now more than ever, I realize it could end in a moment……Which brings me to a side benefit of the sudden and unexpected death of my father:I have SO MUCH more appreciation for EVERYTHING in my life on a daily basis. Right now…

=> I appreciate my Dad for everything he taught me over the years… from how to play cards and change the oil on my car, to the importance of saving and how to solve complex math problems…. And for sharing his love of skiing, the New York Yankees and music with me.

=> I appreciate my husband Adam for how incredibly supportive he’s been and for taking such good care of me.

=> I appreciate my friends, family, neighbors, clients, colleagues and everyone who has called, emailed, sent a card or reached out in some way to check in and express condolences. It means a lot.

Last, but definitely not least, I appreciate YOU for reading, liking, commenting or sharing these Lessons Learned…

The unexpected and sudden loss of my father has been such a huge learning and growth experience for me. Taking on this personal challenge, to share one of my life lessons learned each day for 10 day until today, my Dad’s birthday, has been a very helpful and meaningful way to help me process. Having you follow along kept me going.

THANK YOU.

#10 Lesson Learned from the Unexpected Death of My Father: Focus on Gratitude and Appreciation

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