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Eight Parenting Lessons I Learned From My Parents’ Early Deaths


In recent months I’ve seen a number of crowdfunding attempts to help a family bury a young man, a husband and a father, who died too young. There have been a great deal of these tragic fundraisers entering my newsfeed, and each one fills me with a great deal of anger and sadness. I was once that kid—the one people sent checks to for a very small account that kept me afloat for all of a semester of college immediately after my father died, just two years after my mother had as well.

When my husband and I found we were pregnant I went into morbid orphan-mode pretty quickly, preparing our lives for the chance that we wouldn’t end up being the ones to raise our own children. My mother and father were 29 and 32, respectively, when I was born. They were happily married and dozens of family and friends attended their wedding eight years before my birth. The dire situation their only child found herself in after their untimely deaths was completely unforeseeable by anyone that knew them at the time of their wedding or even at the time of my birth. Some lessons I took from their deaths I learned the hard way, and from some, charitably, I was spared.

 1. Buy Life Insurance

This is how you spare your family having to hold a fundraiser to pay your funeral expenses and for the education of your children. Life insurance is easily the least sexy thing we spend our money on each year, but the peace of mind knowing that we will be able to pay ten years of expenses without batting an eye if anything were to happen to either of us is invaluable. Although my husband is currently the breadwinner, we have an equal amount on each of our heads. If something were to happen to me tomorrow, the cost of childcare would be an enormous burden for him to bear alone, so we budget for the money I save the family, not just the money I earn.

Life insurance is easily the least sexy thing we spend our money on each year, but the peace of mind knowing that we will be able to pay ten years of expenses without batting an eye if anything were to happen to either of us is invaluable.

My mother obtained low-cost life insurance that paid for the immediate costs of her death like funeral arrangements and my mom’s mortgage until a lawyer could sell our mobile home (at a loss). Theoretically, my father had life insurance as well, but he lied on the application about his medical history, invalidating the policy. The policy would have been voided by his suicide within two years of taking out the policy anyway, but the insurance company inexplicably chose to prove the fraud as justification for not paying out the policy instead of citing the documented suicide. My mother’s policy paid for some of my living expenses after she died, and savings bonds I found in a safety deposit box helped pay for summers and a portion of our wedding. The only money I received from my father was a return of the several months of life insurance premiums, several hundred dollars at most. His wife was on the hook, unbeknownst to her while planning the funeral, for funeral costs and their mortgage and other household expenses.

 2. Make a Will and Arrange Guardians for Your Kids

We have a will and a guardianship arrangement in place for people to handle the financial and custodial aspects of our children’s lives. In addition to those we’ve chosen to handle the finances and custody (different individuals), we’ve also selected alternates, in large part due to my personal experience.

When my mother died, I was estranged from my father. She chose one of her uncles to handle my finances and take custody over me. When the time came for that uncle to assume custody, he balked. When college bills needed to be paid, it took weeks of harassment for him to cut a check from my own account. I never understood why either happened, but there was no alternate assigned for either responsibility. I ended up living with an aunt who appropriated a large amount of money from me. Another (more responsible and caring) uncle from a different branch of my family demanded to control my finances, refusing to take a yearly percentage as a fee, as the first uncle had. Had there been alternates named my uncle could have much more easily gotten control sooner and in a more responsible manner.

3. Write Down Your Recipes

Over Thanksgiving one of my friends wrote a heartbreaking and touching blog post about struggling to get her mom’s yams recipe just right for the holiday. She said, “My mom never used recipes, and instead cooked by intuition, by taste.” This is one of those things that often doesn’t occur to you until it’s too late—the tastes of your childhood can disappear with your parents.

The tastes of your childhood can disappear with your parents.

Many of my mother’s famous recipes are documented, but there’s a few that I’ve never been able to find and I can’t bear to try to replicate, knowing I won’t be able to get it quite right, especially considering I keep kosher now. When I start to cook for (and with) my daughter and we have a repertoire of recipes she loves, I plan to keep a small box of index cards with the recipes written down, as well as keeping them stored somewhere digitally. I plan to cook with all my kids as sous chefs so they not only have the recipes, but have seen me make them dozens, if not hundreds, of times.

4. Print Photos and Make Albums

We live in a digital age, and most of my photos are therefore digital-only. Yet there’s something special about sitting down with a big, heavy book of photos and reliving vacations from my childhood. I print all of our best photos and keep them in albums so my children can have the same experience. My greatest fear is losing these pictures to a hard drive crash or a phone in a toilet. With printed pictures, I know at least there will be some physical record of our kids’ childhoods around.

5. Write Down Family Stories

My daughter, already at 14 months, has a strong personality. But sadly, I have no idea what I was like at that age. Was I a monster teether or easy-going like my daughter? Did I walk early or late? Was I loud and opinionated like our daughter or quiet? With all of my parents and grandparents gone, there is no one to ask, which is a serious bummer, to say the least. I have a book in which I hope to write down anecdotes and cute things my kids say and do that I’ve fully intended on filling over the last year. Maybe this post will be the push I need to take a minute a week to jot down a few thoughts.

6. Give the Gift of Genealogy and Family History

I’m obsessed with documenting my family’s genealogical past. I’ve found cousins on Facebook and even through DNA mapping services like 23andMe. I’ve traipsed through cemeteries in Brooklyn in search of my great-great-grandparents’ graves and have spent hundreds of dollars ordering civil records from New York City to map my family’s past. Family history is important to me, probably because I have so little family left.

Family history is important to me, probably because I have so little family left.

I’ve not only learned names and occupations, inspiring stories of arriving from the “old country” with no English or education, but I’ve also learned valuable information about family medical history. Heart problems run rampant on my father’s side, which is important information to have as I grow older.

7. Compile Immediate Family Medical Histories

If I had a dollar for every time I told a medical professional “I don’t know” when he or she asks what happens when I take penicillin or sulfa, I would be a millionaire. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told I’m allergic to these, but I have no idea what happened when I took it as a child. There are many other parts of my family medical history, my own, and that of my parents’ which I’m unaware of that I’m asked frequently about at routine appointments. It would have been invaluable to have some sort of record of any of this information.

8. Make Memories, Not Money, the Priority

My mother was a single mother, so working was not optional. Thankfully, my daughter is blessed with a hard-working father and a mother who has the ability to work part-time from home. We decided when I was pregnant that spending time together as a family, namely with me at home, was more important than the extra money we would have in our bank accounts had I gone back to work. No parent ever wishes they he or she had spent more time working instead of with their children. Being acutely aware of my own mortality has led our family to make different decisions when it comes to how we spend our time and money to facilitate maximum time together as a family.