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Originally published Sunday, December 29, 2013 at 5:30 AM

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Preparing for the worst, step by step

After the sudden death of her husband, Chanel Reynolds found herself overwhelmed by the financial and administrative details. So, she started a website to help others prepare for the worst.


Seattle Times columnist

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Enough. Enough with the procrastinating, the low-prioritizing, and the ignorance-is-bliss belief that Something Awful will never happen.

Because Something Awful happened to Chanel Reynolds, and it made her life a living hell. A paperwork, please-hold, we-can’t-release-that-information damnation that took two years to unlock, sort out and conquer.

And when she was finished, Reynolds, 43, found a new purpose.

She is the kind face behind the tough-love website called “Get Your S**t Together” (via chanelreynolds.com), designed to help people prepare for the worst when times are good. It provides free templates for wills and other important documents, and offers a checklist of things that need to be done. Now.

Not just wills, but emergency funds. Insurance. Phone and email passwords. Powers of attorney. Everything we resolve to do in the New Year — and then never do.

“The amount of stuff that we do all the time that is way worse, we do happily,” Reynolds said recently. “We go to the dentist, we get mammograms, we pick up our dog’s poo.”

She shook her head and smiled.

“I’d rather write my will all day long than go to the dentist.”

Believe her, because she knows.

One day in 2009, Reynold’s husband, Jose Hernando, was hit by a van while riding his bike along Lake Washington. His upper spine was crushed. Paramedics couldn’t believe they could find a pulse.

Reynolds had kissed him goodbye just 20 minutes before.

At the dinner party she had gone to while her husband was out riding, she pulled her phone from her purse and saw 14 missed calls from unfamiliar numbers.

It was the hospital. Hernando lingered there for a week before he died.

Reynolds didn’t even have the code to unlock his phone, or the passwords to his email accounts or online banking. They had wills prepared but hadn’t signed them.

“We get really controlling about gluten and how many carbs we’re eating and maniacally research preschools for our kids,” she said, looking back. “But no will.”

What’s worse, their life insurance was outdated.

“A one-minute phone call to my insurance agency to ask about an umbrella policy would have made the difference between paying off the house or having to sell it at a loss,” she said.

Their policy gave her enough to pay bills and care for their two children (their son, Gabriel, is 10; his daughter, Lyric, 17) but there was a mountain of work to climb.

She started by scribbling notes into journals: “Life insurance.” “Gabby needs a haircut.”

Over time, she had a well-practiced script for dealing with insurance companies and banks. And when she was in the clear, when life had stabilized and she looked back, Reynolds decided to build a website to share her experience with others, and spare them the same ordeal.

“We don’t like to think about our own deaths,” she said. “I’m taking the scary away.”

When we do think about death, it is often in the outrageous, fictional terms of zombie movies and TV shows about murder and autopsies.

But we don’t linger much longer than that, Reynolds said, which is strange. A hundred years ago, people would die at home and their loved ones would wash their bodies. Not anymore.

“Death and dying has become so removed from our lives,” she said. “We back away because it’s not familiar.”

Nine out of 10 people believe in God, or that there is a God, she said. But none of us plan to die, Reynolds said.

“It’s not logical.”

Those who do face the chore of wills and life planning are hit with a tidal wave. A Google search for “personal finance” can bring millions of hits.

“It’s all so overwhelming,” Reynolds said, “so you just go back on Facebook and look at your friends’ cats.”

We don’t return to it until another milestone comes along. Tax time. A wedding. Or a death. If only there was an official Will Day, Reynolds said.

The key, Reynolds said, is reframing what’s important. Look at the process like the emergency-preparedness routine on an airplane: You put your mask on first, so you are better able to deal with whatever happens, and then care for your loved ones.

“In just a few hours, or with a little bit of effort now, you can provide a much softer landing.”

Reynolds only did it because she had no choice.

“As much as I would have liked to cave, I needed to be there for my son and do everything possible to get out the other end.”

She “committed to being happy,” and did things beyond the paperwork that helped shore her life up. She saw a counselor. She worked out. She slept. And she tended to her relationships — which is also important to planning for the future and whatever may come.

Since The New York Times told her story last January (the piece stayed on the “most read” list for an entire weekend) the documents on her website have been downloaded 560,000 times — and counting. (The checklist alone has been downloaded almost 300,000 times.) More than 20,000 people have signed up for her free e-newsletter.

“The organic way this mushroomed out tells me there is really something to this that we want and need. People need a hand with this. They need help, and they need to know where to start.”

Reynolds is doing some public speaking — she did a two-day workshop at Creative LIVE.com in November — and is working on a book that is both a how-to and a memoir.

“I think what people respond to is taking all the responsible stuff,” she said, “and making it more personal.”

Her story could have been anyone’s, Reynolds insisted. But people can change their endings — and avoid a lot of paperwork and pain — with just a few simple tasks.

“Having a choice between sanity and security,” she said, “is not a choice that anyone should have to make.”

Nicole Brodeur: nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.



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