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A Holiday Letter

With planning, life could be fulfilling again for those left behind.

By James P. Ruth, CFP

It’s that time of the year again. You know, the season that brings all those Christmas and holiday cards stuffed with lengthy family update letters. It seems that some people feel compelled to give an annual account of the progress of their lives over the past 12 months and share it with all their friends and loved ones.

Some read like annual reports issued by public companies. Others, mercifully, are double spaced, reducing the reading time nearly in half. Thankfully, most are only one page long. To read the letters, you would think that nothing bad ever happens to these people. Their lives are always perfect and the letter is their way of proving it.

The letters always seem to have a familiar tone. They boast about sun-drenched Caribbean vacations or Marco Polo-like treks across Europe or Asia. A holiday letter would not be complete without the announcement of a big raise or promotion for one of the children. And, of course, the grandchildren are in “gifted and talented” classes in middle school. Sometimes, they enclose a photo to offer as proof of their grand fortune. The reader, invariably, has not had such a successful year.

Over the years, I have discovered that virtually all these letters, like the postage stamps that carry them to our mailboxes, are quickly discarded and gone forever from our memory bank. In all the years I’ve been receiving them, only one stands out. This one, I believe, has special significance to financial advisors. I’d like to share part of it with you.

Christmas 1982

Dear Friends:

I have been putting off starting this Christmas letter because I honestly did not know if I had anything to write about. The past year was different in all ways for me. Looking back, it seems to have passed very rapidly—more than I thought possible. In some respects, it seems Mac’s death took place only a few weeks ago and in others, it was in another lifetime.

It has been a year of learning for me—learning to live without him, learning to cope with major household problems that I had not handled before, learning to handle illness alone, learning about financial management beyond balancing a checkbook, learning to travel alone and learning to do without his companionship, love and encouragement—which was the most difficult.

The most important thing I have learned is to count my blessings for all of the good things in my life. I am thankful that because of Mac’s planning, he left me able to do the things that I enjoy. I have a beautiful home that he loved as much as I do. And far and above the material things, he left me with the most wonderful family and friends.

Like all holiday letters, the writer went on to document, with great pride, events in the lives of her three children and six grandchildren, as well as the trips she had taken to visit various friends and places.

The value of financial planning
So, what’s the significance of this letter? It occurred to me that she probably would not have sent a Christmas letter that year if she had had to sell her home, return to the job market after a 10-year absence or if she had not had the opportunity to travel to visit family and friends. Or, if a letter had been written, the description of her life would have been quite different.

Because the letter described the pain of personal tragedy, it was different from most holiday letters. But it was much more than that, as well. It was an announcement to those who cared about her that although she had been through a tough time, things were going to be OK. As a result of proper planning and life insurance, she was able to live in her own home, financially independent until her death in 1993. That’s what financial advisors bring to the holiday season. They make it possible for their clients to send holiday letters, even after a great personal loss.

Advisors make it possible for their clients to send holiday letters, even after a great personal loss.

This was the second time she had lost Mac. The first time was during World War ll, when his plane was shot down in occupied Europe. Crews from other bombers said they sighted several parachutes after his plane was hit by enemy fire over Belgium. But the only word from the War Department was that he was "missing in action." It was over six months before she finally learned that he was alive and coming home. Of course, he was not coming home this time, and her letter let her family and friends know that she’d be all right.

I saved this letter for several reasons. First, her words and message really troubled me. Second, it illustrated that life always goes on after the death of a loved one. It showed that with proper planning, life could be fulfilling again for those left behind. And finally, the most important reason this letter has significance for me is that the author was my mother-in-law.

James P. Ruth, CFP, is a registered representative and president of Potomac Financial Group, a financial-advisory practice in Gaithersburg, Md. He can be reached at 301-948-3900 or at


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