Have You Made a Plan for Your Kids if You Die?

PICT0150-141On May 17 a man in Boulder Colorado gunned down his employers and then killed himself. Apparently he was upset about a change in employee commissions and bonuses at the flooring and fireplace store where he worked. He killed Sean and Staci Griffin, who were about my age. They left behind a 13-year-old daughter named Avery. An only child, Avery has red and blue braces and straight brown hair.

This terrible news story has made me think about something no parent ever wants to consider but all of us need to have: a plan for the children in case you die suddenly.

Do you have a plan for your kids if you both die?

James and I have struggled with this for years. And as our family grows larger, it becomes harder to imagine anyone else taking care of our four children.

I wonder if adult children whose parents aren’t divorced have an easier time simply appointing their parents as guardians? The option of my parents is difficult: My mom is single and in her early 70s. She travels as often as twice a month for work, has boarders who help with the dog, and is not in a position to provide a stable home for our children. Plus, she’s very upfront about not liking children.

“The older they get the more I like them,” my mom says. “But babies, I have no time for babies.”

My father is remarried and has a daughter who is about to head to college. Though he was very present in my life growing up, he has already raised the four of us and my half sister. It makes me sad to realize he’s never met Baby Leone. We keep hoping he’ll come visit.

James’s dad is battling throat cancer. He and his wife don’t have any children. They live in Buffalo, New York, where James has a lot of family–aunts, uncles, cousins, and a 91-year-old grandmother. James comes from a big loving Italian-Irish family and we’re always happy to visit Buffalo and spend time with them. We both like the idea of our kids being near family but given his father’s health condition and the fact that the kids haven’t spent much time with that side of the family, having them go to Buffalo doesn’t seem like a good option. Though James’s mom is still young and is wonderful with the children, she lives so far away in such a different culture (Atlanta, Georgia) that neither of us can imagine sending the children there.

Of course there’s no good option if you die unexpectedly while your children are small. Maybe that’s why James and I both end up with lumps in our throats whenever we talk about this. It’s a topic that we revisit as often as once a year, and it’s always hard to think about.

I have family in California, just one state away. I adored my Aunt Judy when I was growing up. Even though I lived in Boston and she lived in Oakland, I wrote to her throughout my childhood, visited almost every summer, and spent a lot of time with my baby cousins, even caring for them while Judy and Jeff went out of town. My kids also adore Auntie Judy and Uncle Jeffrey. They are loving and attentive and kind, and they share many of our values. Two summers ago James and I went to Utah for a working vacation. We left the three kids with Judy and Jeff for a week. They all got on smashingly.

When you draw up a legal document to give guardianship in the case of your death, you only appoint one person, not a couple. So Auntie Judy is it. In the case of her death, we had to appoint someone else.

Judy’s second is my best friend from college who’s been at my side since I was 17 and seen me through many a dysfunctional relationship. She was the maid of honor at our wedding eleven years ago. Even though she lived three thousand miles away, Sue was there just hours after Hesperus was born and she was at Athena’s birth. One of the reasons our family moved to Oregon almost six years ago was to be closer to her. Auntie Sue (”She’s not really our auntie but that’s what we call her,” my literally-minded children say) makes the children Halloween costumes, teaches them the difference between lemon balm and basil, lets her help them feed her chickens, and has their pictures all over the walls of her house. She married two years ago and my children love her quiet, kind, unassuming, and very thoughtful husband as if Uncle Mark’s been with us since the beginning. I hate the idea of burdening them with four children, but I know Sue would love them and take good care of them, because she already does.

Thirteen-year-old Avery is going to Boston to live with her aunt and uncle and two cousins. She’ll be growing up on the East Coast instead of in Colorado. But as James said when he gave the eulogy at his Grandpa Joe’s funeral, a little part of us lives on in our children. Even if they’re too young to remember us when we die, they carry within themselves some of our values, some memories of us, and all of our love.

“What if you die Mommy?” Athena asks me as she hugs me tightly before bed. “I really don’t want you to die.”

“I don’t want to die either,” I say. “Not soon anyway. I think if I died you would be really angry at me.”


“For leaving you. Even though I would never leave you on purpose. I also think you’d be really sad and really miss me. I’d be sad and miss you too.”

“I hope you don’t die, Mommy.”

“I’m going to try really hard not to.”

Have you made a plan for your kids if you die? What factors have gone into your decision about who would care for them?

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