When Money Becomes a Life and Death Matter

I am still reeling from the events of last month. I knew that our relationship with money was important, but just how important has been driven home to me in a shocking way.

cruise-ship-suicideMy father went on vacation in April with his “little sister,” my aunt Faye (not her real name). She found an incredible deal for a 15-day Panama Canal cruise – 80% off on a trip from Puerto Rico to San Diego. She booked a suite for two on the back of the cruise ship (where they could view BOTH continents from their private deck) and first-class flights for both of them.

The smiled, they laughed, they ate (and ate and ate!) They had the trip of a lifetime. And on the final night of the cruise, after my father went to bed, Aunt Faye slipped out to the deck for some fresh air. Then she climbed overboard, and let go.

The next morning, my father awoke to find her missing, and her bed not slept in. He alerted the ship and they began to page her. Surely she was just on the internet, enjoying coffee on the deck, or somewhere curled up in a lounge chair asleep.

As the day wore on, it became apparent that something was very wrong. By 1pm, the ship had been emptied of passengers, and Faye was still nowhere to be found.

The Coast Guard was notified and began searching the sea, which they did for the next 22 hours. My father was taken into custody of the FBI for intensive questioning. The cruise ship contacted me and asked me to fly to San Diego immediately.

I didn’t need to wait for the ship’s closed circuit security camera footage (discovered the next morning during an around-the-clock investigation) to reveal what had happened. I knew. My aunt was gone. And as my uncle confessed to me, “I am shocked, but not surprised.”

I had been very concerned about my aunt. She had been depressed about her financial situation, and it consumed her thoughts (at least, when she wasn’t on or planning her next cruise, her favorite diversion.) She had retired young and was “running out of money,” in her words. She loved luxury cruises more than anything in the world. She had been on over 50 cruises, often paying a friend’s or family member’s way so she didn’t have to travel alone.

Although Faye received disability income of nearly $1800 a month and had started her retirement with a once-very-substantial 401k, she had no interest in living within her means. She defended her vacations by saying that she might meet a wealthy man on one of these cruises who would rescue her from her dwindling assets.

We would get in arguments; her psychiatrist, her sister and I would “command” her to stop taking cruises and plead with her to develop a sustainable financial strategy. She said she was “only happy on cruises.” I urged her to find other ways to be happy, but refused to connect with other people in her town or explore less expensive hobbies. (She said I sounded like her therapist, which I took as a compliment.)

Faye was no longer living in reality. The cruise ship was her heroin, and she was mainlining now. Her life as well as her finances had fallen apart. Still, she took seven cruises in the last six months of her life. I urged her not to book this cruise, saying I knew she “couldn’t afford it,” but she hung up and bought the tickets anyway.

After losing all perspective, my aunt chose to lose herself at sea. Her (excellent) credit was now maxed. Her accounts were hitting empty. She had defaulted on her mortgage, and creditors were now calling. If she couldn’t live in first-class luxury, she didn’t want to live at all. (Though ironically, she scrimped and ate peanut butter sandwiches so that she could take more cruises.)

Faye left behind no children, no close friends, no note of explanation, and, in the words of singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, a “solid gold question mark twenty feet tall.”

I have said for years, most of us in this culture have a love-hate relationship with money. (It’s almost impossible not to, given the opposing forces and opinions that shape our understanding of the world.) Without understanding this powerful phenomenon, it turns into a distorted mirror through which we see life and even ourselves.

In extreme cases, this love-hate relationship can lead to self-destruction. But with understanding and compassion, the money mirror can lead to enlightenment and the refinement of our passions.

What happens to the kid (or the adult) who has everything they want without limit? Boredom, even disdain for their toys. Or guilt that others can’t enjoy the same. Fear or dislike for others not similarly endowed.

But most of us encounter the opposite experience – that of “not enough.” Money imposes limits and scarcity upon our world, however illusory those limits are. Gently, those limits can actually serve us by leading us to CHOOSE – choose what matters most to us. Choose what gives us the most joy.

At times, our yearnings lead us to bust past illusory financial limits once assumed as “reality” and discover that we are limitless beings with the ability to create worth and wealth through the mere power of our intentions. Other times, money gives us the opportunity to practice forgiveness. Forgiveness towards our parents, our stockbroker, the boss who downsized us. Forgiveness for our lost years, lost savings, or our lost sense of self-worth that prevented us from building or keeping our net worth.

Faye’s death reminds me daily that my work of reconciling people to themselves through the lens of money is important, essential, even life-saving work. I don’t know what I might have done differently that could have saved her, but I do know that I can continue to make a profound difference for others who are willing to transform their relationship with money.

I am also reminded that the passions and callings that stir our souls are not disconnected from the pain that others experience. What pain, what suffering, what problems pull on your heart strings? I believe that “pull” represents a difference that you are meant to make, in some small or large way. I may have not been able to save my Aunt Faye, but perhaps, I can make a difference for someone else’s “Aunt Faye” and guide her away from the brink of disaster.

Thanks for listening. Our family appreciates your prayers and energetic support during this difficult time.


One thought on “When Money Becomes a Life and Death Matter

  1. Chellie Campbell

    Oh, Kate, what a sad story – I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing it so that hopefully, some others will be helped. Addiction is powerful, and many addicts die if they can’t get their drug of choice, be it cruises, or alcohol, or sex, or gambling, or shopping, or football, or whatever. Anything at all done to excess where it starts to be harmful to your overall well-being is an addiction.

    I think it is particularly difficult in this day of hyper-interconnectivity, to maintain a reasonable idea of what lifestyle is possible for yourself. Television families live quite well-to-do lives, we hear about celebrities and their fabulous riches, multi-million-dollar homes, and glorious vacations to exotic locations, and we can’t help but want that, too. We have to have a spiritual center that gives value and meaning to love, service, kindness, caring, fellowship, and spirit, but those things are not present in most of the mainstream media that we are bombarded with every day. I think one of the reasons Oprah was so successful is that she was grounded in these principles and focused her show around them and her wealth flowed from that. I hope that she is able to bring this to her cable network, and that someone else picks up the torch on network TV.

    Thanks for the wonderful work you are doing in the world to help people with their financial issues and so that “living in abundance” becomes something people can do without overindulging in the glamor of cruises or unsustainable cruises.

    I write a blog on my book “The Wealthy Spirit” and would love to share some of your articles there. Email me at chellie@chellie.com and I’ll looking forward to connecting with you!