GYST Co-Founder Chanel Reynolds shares her personal story about becoming a widowed single-parent and how she (finally) got her shit together. Learn how taking care of a few core items now can save you a mountain of suffering ‘After’. And if the shit has already hit the fan – a checklist for what to do, find, and organize.
“There are a few simple things I wish I had taken care of before my life went sideways – like a will, life insurance, and some details jotted down.”
On July 17, 2009, my husband José Hernando was hit by a van while riding his bike down a pretty road near the lake, a few miles from our house. One of the stunning and glorious summer days in Seattle that make living through all the winter rain and gray feel worth it. He was set on going for a quick training ride before his last bike race of the season. I wanted him to go to a dinner party with me and our 5-year old instead.
Our last moment together, he was being goofy and adorable, wanting me to kiss him before he left. I refused, twice. We had been bickering about the usual two-working-parents-young-child-no-time type issue. He tried one last time and I couldn’t help smile at him and kiss him back.
My last words to him were, “Ok, I’ll kiss you, but I’m still mad at you.”
Twenty minutes later it was all over. The accident was really, really bad. It decimated his upper spine and caused an immediate traumatic cardiac arrest. Technically, he died on the scene.
But somehow, José made it to the hospital with the barest of a pulse. Everyone was shocked. The paramedics were so well trained, the hospital so close, the ER docs so amazing, José was in such incredible physical shape. They were able to keep just enough of him alive. And yet, after a time-suspending week in the ER, surgery, the ICU; every possible test told us the same story. He was never coming back. So I made the decision I was most certain he would want. I approved removing medical support and, quickly, he was gone.
I stayed with him a few hours, took all the tape and tubes off and washed his body. Family came into the room to brush his forehead or touch his hand. I had to pick a funeral home. Then, there was nothing else to do but go home and tell our son his dad was dead. At some point I’d try figure out what, and how, I was going to live the rest of my life. Do you just wake up the next day and put on pants and go the store like a regular human? I had no idea. Could I afford the the house? What is probate? How much insurance did we have? What the password to his phone? Again, no idea.
But, there was another thought banging around in my head. It landed there the first day in the ICU when I turned to my friend and said, “Oh my god, I don’t have my shit together at all. And if this is happening to us, what about everyone else in the hospital? And everywhere? We’re all so much more vulnerable than we ever imagined.”
If I could make it out the other end of this alive – I didn’t want anyone else to have to.
So, out of scribbles in notebooks, hours and hours making phone calls and tracking stuff down I learned the hard way about all the things I could have done ‘before’ that would have helped the ‘after’ suck a little less. I had an unbelievable amount of positive support and help from friends. Then, there were also the numerous and wildly messy late nights, very dark thoughts, and more than a handful of moments too unbearable to speak aloud. It was very hard and seemed to take forever, but after a few years I (mostly) got my shit together.
And, that moment in the hospital stayed with me, I couldn’t shake it and knew I wanted to help anyone and everyone avoid the ‘optional’ suffering that comes along with the crappy, sad, and gut-wrenching suffering we cannot. Like death, or diagnosis, or disaster, etc.
A few years after José died, most days I felt almost like myself again so I finally launched a website called Get Your Shit Together (getyourshittogether.org). It wasn’t fancy, but it was true and honest and broke down all the overwhelming stuff into an easy list of all the things I wish I would have done. It worked.
In fact, it really worked. I launched the site on Monday night, and in 24 hours thousands of folks were hitting the site.
And by Friday, it was featured in Ron Lieber’s New York Times ‘Your Money’ Column. Apparently, a lot people read it.
I was beside-myself-excited the message was reaching so many people and was really helping.
The press was very kind to generously share the site.
And then, thousands of break-your-heart-open-all-over-the-floor notes from all over the world started pouring into my inbox.
Having read your story I know I’m not crazy, just stressed temporarily out of my mind. I’ll be sharing your website with anyone who will listen because I would not wish this experience on anyone. I’ll be collecting passwords and using your checklists so that I make things easier for my husband, daughter and myself.
Three years after José died, I found myself talking about the terrible details of his death over, and over, and over again. And pretty quickly, it made me feel like crawling under my bed with a bottle of whatever and a take a ten-day nap.
“This is going to be short as I am now sitting in a hospital room with my husband who suffered a stroke after hitting his head. This lead to Brain Surgery on Saturday. I am in the same boat. My husband was financially responsible for mortgages, rent, car payments, etc… I was laid off 3 months ago. I have no passwords, documents, etc… We don’t know what the future brings us.”
It could have dawned on me more quickly, however, that in my hopes to help people take care of this stuff Before – I was finding a whole lot of people, like myself, who found themselves in a world of hurt After.
And when I had enough time between his death and the beginning of the rest of my life I could see it isn’t just about my story – it is about all of our stories. We all have one, or will. And that’s why Jessica, Phil and I (plus a bad-ass strategic advisor who brought us together) created GYST.com. So, now what? We want to help as many people as possible get their shit together.
A few months ago I went through and laid out as much of what I want to have happen as I could, after I watched a family friend go through a sudden death that no one was prepared for. The whole time my wife gave me the “I don’t want to think about this!” attitude, but I know that if she ever does need it, she will be grateful for it.
After: If the shit already hit the fan.
Recently, I was asked a (surprisingly) hard question. If I could go back in time and offer some advice that isn’t on the website, what would it be?
The first thing that came to mind is I would lean in close, give myself a hug, and say, “Oh sweetie, if anyone can do this, you can.” Here are a few other tips.
Help that is Actually Helpful
Everyone is different, and I won’t pretend to know how you can best take care of yourself, or family, kids, house, pets, bills, mortgage, grocery shopping, house-cleaning, carpools, finances or forgiveness – but I do know that these few mantras I said over and over in my head really helped, and others seem to have found them useful, too.
1. Put Your Mask on First
Adrenaline can keep you going for a little while, but then, not so much.
So it may sound a bit cliche, but it is 100% true. You must take care of you or you won’t be of help to yourself or anyone else. The two times in my whole life that I lost 10-15 pounds in one week is 1) when I got e-coli while traveling internationally, and 2) the week my husband died.
This is a marathon, not a sprint.
2. Eat, Sleep, Sweat
Sleep enough. Eat enough. Move your body.
Every day. Consider this your job. Period. That is all.
3. Ask for Help & Accept Help
Letting people help you will make them feel better. Let them.
I grew up in Minnesota, which means asking for help isn’t really part of my vocabulary. For example, I’d almost prefer to light myself on fire rather than let someone carry a bag of groceries for me. The thing about going through a hard time, is that it pretty much totally and completely levels us all. And often we are too sad, proud, overwhelmed, exhausted, stressed, or stubborn to accept help. And generally too shattered to ask for it. So please, let someone carry a damn bag of groceries for you.
When it comes to helping, people also/often have no idea how to do it, or even know what to say. Which, unfortunately, can look really awkward or they may even ‘panic-talk’ and say something stupid – ending up not being helpful at all. Which wasn’t the point.
Friend: “Anything at all ok? I’m here to help. You’re not alone. So just call me. Annnnnytime.”
You (option 1): Thanks so much, I really appreciate it. (and you never call)
You (option 2): Thanks so much, I really appreciate it. Actually, I am finding it hard to keep up with everything. The yard needs to be mowed/dog-walked/kids driven to sports/etc. Could you do that once or twice a week for a while?
You might have to “help them help you.” Please go with option #2.
4. Assign Captains
Organize the shit out of the important stuff. Everything else? Meh.
Perhaps military protocol or the mafia isn’t your default organizing style – but in desperate times you need to know the important shit is covered. Everything else can likely slide for a while. And yes, I watched way too much of The Sopranos a while back.
Whatever you want to call it, there are a few basic categories of ‘stuff’ that needs to get taken care of, if you only have to talk to one person (a.k.a. your “Captain”) then that is way easier to manage.
Here are the general ‘neighborhoods’ of stuff that need Captaining:
- House (cleaning, groceries, etc)
- Kids & Family (keeping routine, visitors, etc)
- Family Discussions (choices about housing, care, medical decisions)
- Visitors (at hospital or house, out of town guests, etc)
- Pets (feeding, walking, maybe someone can pet-sit a while, etc)
- Bills (mortgage, phone, tuitions, credit cards, etc)
- Probate (estate issues, gathering paperwork, etc)
- Financial (banking, investments, insurance, etc)
- Mental/Emotional (counseling, resources, getting out, exercise, etc)
- Funeral (services, cremation/burial, etc)
5. Get Your Shit Together
Get the elephant sitting on top of you off your chest.
One thing at a time. Baby steps. Or, “Whatever gets you through the night.”, as our friend Frank Sinatra said. Ask yourself what worries you the most or keeps you up at night. What one task will make you feel better or relieved once it is done?
One by one – get it done. Trying to eat the elephant off your chest all in one day is too overwhelming. But bite by bite? If anyone can do it, you can.