Are You Prepared for Death?
A former award-winning TV news anchor wants you to learn from her mistakes
It's been nearly five years since Pat Miles' husband, Charles "Bucky" Zimmerman, died at age 72 after a short bout with pancreatic cancer. He was healthy, she says, so his illness came as a shock. Another unwelcome surprise? What happened after his death.
Instead of being able to grieve fully, Miles was consumed by attorney battles, tracking down account numbers, and sorting through investments. She says it was a "nightmarish" scenario where the people she thought were on her side weren't interested in her well-being. The retired, award-winning Twin Cities TV anchor and radio host, who now lives in Arizona, was truly lost when it came to navigating her husband's death and consumed by what she calls the "grim fog of grief."
"If you wait until someone's sick and dying, you've waited too long because you're not going to get the information you need at that point."
"Bucky and I had a will and a trust – I thought everything was taken care of," Miles, 73, says. "As it turned out, nothing was taken care of. If you wait until someone's sick and dying, you've waited too long because you're not going to get the information you need at that point. You're thinking about keeping this person alive for another day or getting them to drink a bottle of water. You're not thinking about the account numbers, the investments, the other things you don't know about. If you don't do all these things when times are good, you'll have a tough time, just like I did."
Determined to help people avoid her mistakes, Miles wrote "Before All Is Said and Done: Practical Advice for Living and Dying Well" featuring the voices of fellow widows along with financial, legal and medical experts.
"The people who have read the book tell me they are taking action," Miles says. "They're making changes. They're dealing with it. They're thanking me for writing and speaking about this. That's very gratifying."
Turning Anger Into Action
Miles listened to hundreds of people tell their stories during her journalism career. But the experiences people tell her about now hit differently than during her time as a broadcaster.
"I tell people I used to be like you. I never would have come to listen to me talk about this book."
"When I sign books after a speaking engagement, everybody has a story to tell me, and I'd say 90% of these are not good stories," says Miles, who has talked to many different groups, including major financial institutions, since the book's release. "It had me reliving a lot of it. They say my mom went through this; my mom had this happen. As a culture, we don't want to deal with death. I tell people I used to be like you. I never would have come to listen to me talk about this book."
Writing "Before All Is Said and Done" was anything but a cathartic experience. However, Miles doesn't think of it as a "sad" book but an informational one.
"I was motivated to write the book because I got extremely angry – at myself and Bucky," she recalls. "It was pure anger at being stupid and naive. Bucky died, assuming everything was going to be fine. He said I wouldn't have to worry about anything. That wasn't true."
The Power of Preparation
Miles has seen first-hand how powerful it is to be prepared for death. Her co-author, Suzanne Watson, took all the advice they collected for "Before All Is Said and Done," including changing her and her husband's estate plan and checking in with a financial advisor. When Watson's husband recently died, she was able to fully grieve his loss without worrying about the things that Miles struggled through.
"It gave her peace of mind because she was so prepared," Miles says. "That's why I wrote the book; this doesn't have to happen to you if you educate yourself. I've started preparing for my death. My kids will have all the information they need when I'm gone. It's like any other fear — you must face it. That fear starts to go away because you're dealing with it."
"You need someone to walk alongside you. There are many good people out there, and I wish I would have met them earlier."
Many families avoid conversations about death because they're uncomfortable. Miles addresses this theme throughout the book, including in the chapter "Dad Never Told Us That: The Quandary of Stepchildren."
"It causes families to split up and siblings never to speak again," she says. "It doesn't have to be that way if we just take the time to communicate and properly prepare."
She recently had a conversation with a woman whose husband was in a coma. Her stepchildren had power of attorney, changed everything, and left the woman with nothing. But her husband eventually recovered, found out what happened, and made sure his wife would be well taken care of in the future.
"If her husband hadn't woken up, she said she would have been living in her car," Miles recalled.
Surrounding Yourself with Allies
When she started researching the book, Miles scoured the internet for resources. She found things about grief, estate planning, and wills, but there was no what she called "How to be a Widow for Dummies." As she dug into her project, she was surprised at the universal themes surrounding death.
"The most amazing thing is that every single person I talked to had issues – financial, attorney, family, stepchildren," she says.
"We plan for everything in our lives — a big wedding, a baby's birth. Death is a big event, too," she continues. "You need to plan for this event as much as you plan for anything else in your life because it will happen to 100% of us. Dying is a very lucrative business, and the people in it want to make money, and they will make money off you if you don't know what you're doing."
Miles advises people to assemble a team of trusted advisors, including a friend to take with you to meetings. She wishes she would have listened more carefully when she and Zimmerman met with financial experts and lawyers because once he died, she was on her own.
"You need someone to walk alongside you," she says. "There are many good people out there, and I wish I would have met them earlier."
The Little Things
Even a recent trip to a warehouse club store reminded her that there are still so many things she doesn't know even after writing her book. When she went to renew her membership, which was in her late husband's name, the employee helping her commented on all the rebates that come with the card. Miles was dumbfounded.
"It was in his name, but my card has my picture on it," she says. "I didn't get any rebates for five years. It's stuff you don't know. Even the little things."
Miles doesn't hesitate to answer when asked what she thinks Bucky would feel about all she's done since his death.
"He'd be extremely proud," she says. "He always was very proud of me. Bucky loved to have his picture taken, and he loved to have people talk about him. I think he'd be very happy about all of this."