A story of grief by a man and a boy

love legacy

Warning! Psychologists say that you’re very likely to want to ignore the subject matter of this blog post. Take it from me, though: it may well have the power to change the lives of those you love one day.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever told anyone this before, but when my wife, Desreen, died I checked her emails and found one from Amazon about a package she had arranged to have dropped at one of its lockers at our local supermarket. It was only mid-November but I discovered that it was a Christmas present for me – she was so well organised like that.

Her gift was doubtless designed to be something for us both to enjoy together; I’m absolutely positive she intended to make 36 Hours, 125 Weekends in Europe  part of our shared ‘bucket list’ for the future. I wasn’t even meant to have opened it yet but, tragically, it already had the makings of pilgrimage instead.

I don’t exactly remember when bucket lists and ‘things to do before you die’ became, well, ‘a thing’, but I do remember being quite young and feeling rather unsettled by both. A twenty-odd-year-old me wondered, How can people face into death in such an upbeat way? And were they even doing that, or had the subject of death only come into it to give people the excuse to take time out of everyday life to do the things they love? Perhaps when death is the bit that comes after a chronology of amazing life experiences, then it’s not so tough to swallow.

‘So why then,’ I asked a psychologist some months back, ‘do people so often avoid talking about the consequences of death when they really must be dealt with in life?’

Dr. Thomas Webb, a social psychologist at the University of Sheffield, and I were talking about life insurance and, more specifically, why so many adults with children don’t have it.

‘Terror Management Theory can probably explain it,’ he suggested as I stared back at him blankly – my knowledge of psychology not stretching far beyond sitting opposite a counsellor once a week. ‘It suggests that people have a tendency to suppress thoughts of their own death so quickly that they often don’t even surface in consciousness.’

I immediately thought of how my son used to deal with his mum’s death when he was still really small.

‘Daddy, I really miss Mummy,’ a two-year-old Jackson would cry as his words took hold of my heart, crushing it. ‘Oh look! A squirrel!’ he would then exclaim excitedly, instantly distracted by his own immediate consciousness. As I picked my emotions up off the floor, he could invariably be seen chasing a small creature round the park, laughing hysterically like it was the best moment of his life.

Dr. Webb and I were working together on a study by the Institute of Inertia – a partnership between and the University of Sheffield – of which he is chair, following my own tragic (yet merciful) experience of life insurance. Desreen and I took out a policy just eight months before she was killed, which has since afforded me the house that our son and I now live in together in southeast London.

According to the study, though, roughly half of British parents don’t have life insurance and over two-fifths have never discussed the financial implications of death with their partners.

Although I’m now pretty much obsessed about making sure my friends all have life insurance, these stats really doesn’t surprise me at all. It wasn’t until our hands were forced, when Desreen started her own business, that we even thought about it. It wasn’t like we had avoided it – it just hadn’t even crossed our minds.

But how could that be when we were otherwise such conscientious parents?

‘It’s straightforward,’ Dr. Webb explained, ‘people suppress thoughts of their own death simply because they don’t like thinking about it. And there’s evidence to suggest that they do so relatively automatically too, which may indeed prohibit people from protecting their families.’

So how can anyone be expected to address the financial uncertainty of their death if they aren’t even naturally programmed to be able to think about it?

The answer, apparently, can be found not in life but in love. The new study proposes that the word ‘life’ may inherently make people think of death, and that when they think about death they quite naturally switch off.

As a result, the Institute of Inertia set out to investigate the idea of reframing life insurance as ‘love insurance’ – a label social psychologists suggest may be more engaging as it alludes to more ‘mind-pleasing’ security and protection, rather than death.

Dr. Webb explains, ‘It’s possible that removing the word ‘life’ and therefore the idea of death from life insurance could help people protect those that they love should something happen to them.’

The research looks promising, too; nearly a third more parents say they would take out a ‘love insurance’ policy.

Shakespeare’s Juliet famously said, ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’ but perhaps she was wrong after all. Maybe a label has the potential to change everything.

Hers, like so many others’, was a tragic story of love ultimately challenged by death. Perhaps this insight has the power to see love challenge tragic death right back – even if only financially.

6 comments on “love legacy

  1. Mercedes M.
    June 2, 2016

    I’m so grateful that my amazing (truly) partner and I discussed “love” insurance and took out policies many years before leukemia took his life in July of 2014. He would be so satisfied to know that his son, a thirteen year old with severe autism, and I were able to afford to move back to Los Angeles to be close to family, to make a nice home and begin to try to make something out of this new reality. The fact that we had that policy in place was the one beacon of light in and otherwise disastrous outcome. We are without him and he is without us, unbelievable. We are without him but not without recourse. We’re where he’d want us to be. Lucky for having planned ahead. All the best to you and your son.

  2. Richard Smith
    June 2, 2016

    Spot on, Ben – as usual. We insured Heather’s love for us less than a year before her initial cancer diagnosis in 2004. This piece of luck has enabled us to greatly enhance our home in Wokingham – Heather’s final, loving, lasting gift to her three fabulous teenage children and me. We move back in next week and I’m often crying at the power and love of this gift. Family and friends’ reactions to the house can also be quite overwhelming.

    On the topic of (not) thinking about death: it’s two years this month since Heather died, so I’ve had a chance to reflect on this quite a bit. One notion that’s comforted me is the thought that death isn’t scary at all; it’s actually the natural, permanent state of everything.

    This daily thing we do (getting up, breathing, eating, loving, working, playing, etc.), that we call life, is just a transient phase. Accepting, or even embracing, the certainty, the finality, and the proximity of death, is helping me keep daily troubles in perspective, and not worry over much about my own end, whenever that is.

    Remind me of this, can you, when I’m facing my final hours? I just hope I can face it with the same courage, humour and love that my awesome wife Heather did.

    It so helps to write this stuff down, doesn’t it? Best wishes to you Ben and all your readers.

  3. Westendmum
    June 2, 2016

    Hear hear.

  4. Donna
    June 2, 2016

    My husband did have a life insurance that was with his private pension. However in November 2008 my husband was made redundant. So being the consiensous person he was he looked at ourfinances and froze his pension until he was back in work.
    On January 5th 2009. My husband returned to his job after being offered 10 more weeks work.
    That morning he collapsed with a massive bleed on the brain. After a week on life support we were given the devastating news that he was brain dead and his life support was turned off. He passed away on 9th January 2009. We had two sons an 18 yr old who was in his first year at university and a five yr old.
    My husbands 40 thousand pounds life insurance should have made our lives a little easier at such a terrible time. Except little did we know that when my husband froze his pension it cancelled the life insurance.
    The bank who he had his pension and life insurance with were absolutely terrible to the point of sending a cd recording of my dead husband being told that his life insurance would be void if he froze his pension.
    Little did he know that he had a ticking time bomb in his head that would claim his life just two months later.
    I tried to fight the decision madesign by the bank not to pay out but even a solicitor said, although it was immorally wrong. There was nothing I could do.
    We had to sell our family home and my eldest left university has I could not help him financially.
    So yes life insurance is a must but is cases like ours it is a nightmare on top of losing a loved one when they dont pay out.
    I still struggle now. It angers me that my husband paid into both a pension and life insurance all for nothing.

    • victoriawhyte
      June 2, 2016

      I’m so sorry, that must have been devastating on top of everything else you were dealing with 😞

  5. Kay
    June 2, 2016

    Indeed! I lost my husband to melanoma in 2013 leaving me with two little girls . Thank god we had life insurance! This paid off our home and a lump sum to live off . I dread to think how we would have coped without life insurance. It has allowed us to continue with life in the way we wanted with me at home looking after the children now 6 and 8. It’s a very important subject ! X

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