The balance of life, death

Mortality: A new awareness of life's fragility has brought an upsurge in insurance and wills, and renewed attention to the things that matter most.

January 01, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Haunting scenes of Sept. 11 terror have led people to ponder their mortality in a way that is translating into more wills, more life insurance and, according to counselors and theologians, fewer inhibitions in discussions about death.

It's as if the terrorist attacks, and ensuing news coverage of their devastating effect on families, have raised a curtain on subjects - wills, end-of-life resuscitation - that, to many younger Americans, had been taboo.

"I feel reasonably sure that people are more aware of the fragility of existence," says Catholic theologian and author Richard John Neuhaus. "This has a sobering effect with many positive dimensions. People are getting serious about their lives."

Getting "serious," Neuhaus says, can mean making more thoughtful life choices.

Or, say others, it may mean simply addressing matters, such as life insurance, that were previously neglected because they didn't seem important or were too uncomfortable to deal with.

Jim Buie, 47, a Takoma Park free-lance writer who has a 17-year-old son, is among those for whom life insurance has become a heightened priority.

A friend from his high school days died in March of a mysterious illness. Then there were the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the anthrax scares and the lingering terrorist threat. Many of those killed Sept. 11 were Buie's age or younger - baby boomers for whom death had seemed a distant concept.

It all took a toll, and Buie and his wife increased their insurance coverage as of today.

"We have a strong sense of the fragility of life," he said, echoing Neuhaus' words.

Rise in applications

Northwestern Mutual, the nation's largest individual insurer, reports a 15 percent increase in life insurance applications from mid-September through the middle of December, compared with the same period in 2000 - an increase it believes is linked to Sept. 11. The company, which receives more than 20,000 applications in a typical month, is paying about $124 million in death claims from the attacks. Average age of the 157 policyholders who died: 41.

In many cases, those inquiring about insurance fit the same profile as the World Trade Center victims. "We're talking about people with young children, kind of in the prime of their lives," said Greg Oberland, a Northwestern Mutual vice president. "They think they're invincible, and I think what September 11 told them is, nobody is invincible."

Another insurer, Cigna, says it received more than three times the usual number of calls from mid-September through October from customers seeking to raise the amount of life insurance they buy through their employers.

In Oregon, a national leader in living wills, medical ethicists report a doubling of orders since Sept. 11 for forms in which patients provide clear instructions for what type of treatment they want - or don't want - near the end of their lives.

"It's in the context of thinking about dying and about the stories of firemen and families in New York," said Dr. Susan Tolle of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

And one month after the attacks, 24 percent of respondents told a Harris Interactive survey commissioned by Northwestern Mutual that they had prepared a will since Sept. 11, and 38 percent were considering drafting one.

"It all boils down to not taking anything for granted," said attorney Brad Bailey, 37, who recently revisited his will with his wife, Leah. They live in the Southeast but asked that the location remain vague.

After his wife had a baby 19 months ago, Brad Bailey began to have a nagging feeling that it was time to update the couple's wills and expand their life insurance coverage. But, somehow, they never found the time.

That changed after they sat down to watch the news on the evening of Sept. 11 and began to absorb what had transpired.

"It really kind of stuck in the back of our minds that this can happen to us and we need to get on with the program and get it done," Leah Bailey said.

Altering the chronology

According to sociologists, most Americans historically postpone thoughts of their own demise until they encounter certain predictable triggers. But Sept. 11 seems to have altered the chronology.

"Normally, as we get into midlife, a number of things sharpen our awareness of mortality - our parents die, we begin to experience aging," said sociologist Kenneth J. Doka, a consultant to the Washington-based Hospice Foundation of America, a nonprofit group educating people about end-of-life care.

"But I think great traumatic events, where newspapers are constantly running obituaries, make us very aware of our own mortality," Doka said.

The new awareness helped cause the phone to start ringing at the office of insurance representative John Putnam, who is working with the Baileys. Putnam heard in his clients' voices a new sense of urgency.

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