By BRITTNEY LACOMBE
I live in St. Petersburg, Florida. On May 8th, 2011, my mother, two younger sisters and I drove to a local campsite for our annual Mother's Day camping trip. When we arrived, my mother said that her foot was bothering her. We thought maybe she had hit it on something, so we didn't think much of it. But that night, the pain got so bad she couldn't stand it. She called 911 and an ambulance took her to a hospital.
The doctors thought she had cellulitis, a blood infection, and wanted to keep her overnight to make sure the infection didn't spread. We brought her presents and balloons to the hospital, to celebrate Mother's Day. At 9 p.m., visiting hours were over. We said goodbye and went home, planning to come back when visiting hours started again at 7 a.m.
When Life Fell Apart
At 6:30 the next morning I got a call from the hospital. When they had gone to check on her that morning, she was blue. They tried to resuscitate her for 45 minutes, but it was too late. She had died from a pulmonary embolism -- a catastrophe that left me without a mom.
Suddenly, at 20 years old, I was the head of the family, and I had to take care of my sisters, who were 15 and 16, on my own.
My aunt came over the next day to help me deal with funeral arrangements. I wanted to bury my mother, like she wished. But when we finished looking through all of her bank accounts and papers, we realized she only had $300 in the bank.
She was completely behind on her bills and had no life insurance.
I knew that our finances weren't great, but I didn't think we could be that bad off. A proper funeral, which costs thousands, was out of the question. I hated the idea of cremation, but that's the only thing the state would pay for. We couldn't even afford to hold a reception, and all of my mother's family members never got the opportunity to gather and grieve together.
I felt devastated. I didn't know where to go or what to do. Within a week of her passing, shut-off notices came for the electricity and water. The bank called every day looking for a payment on the mortgage. Since I was only working part time, paying these debts was out of the question. Even though I explained my situation to the bank, I was told I only had weeks before the house would be foreclosed on and our electricity and water would be cut off.
My aunt and I started looking for resources to get us through the month. At work, where I did customer service for a local newspaper, I asked to have more hours. I tried to get help from the community to help us get through that month and to save the house we had lived in since 2004, but it was a lost cause.
How Did We Get Here?
I grew up in a middle class family, where both of my parents always worked very hard to provide. My parents got divorced in 2006, and my father was no longer in our lives.
In 2010, when I was in high school, my mother got laid off from her company in a major downsizing. It was stressful, because I knew we had always lived paycheck to paycheck, and I didn't know if everything was going to turn out OK.
She was collecting unemployment, but by the time we went on our Mother's Day camping trip, it was about to run out and she was looking for another job. Meanwhile, I was working and taking classes toward a degree in education.
Picking Up the Pieces
On June 1st, through assistance from Catholic Charities and the HUD program, we were able to move into a small two-bedroom apartment 15 minutes away from where we used to live, near my sisters' school.
I had to pack up our entire family home. Since we were moving from a three-bedroom house to a two-bedroom apartment, I had to decide what meant the most to us as a family, and what to let go. I moved through the process slowly, taking box by box to our new apartment. But I didn't move fast enough. The bank came and foreclosed on the house, and they were able to keep what they wanted. We lost a lot.
We also had to give our pets away. Our two dogs went to family members until we could afford to get them back. Our cats went to the shelter.
During that time, a counselor from a local program came to our house twice a week to help us through the grief processing. I decided to change my major to social work, so I could help other young adults who were going through what I went through.
Currently, I work 40 or more hours a week at the newspaper, then attend school full time after that at the University of South Florida. My sisters are in 11th and 9th grade, and I don't want them to work while they're in school. They have enough on their plates.
How We're Getting By
We still live paycheck to paycheck and struggle. I receive no rent or food assistance. Thankfully, if I run out of grocery money, I am able to borrow from friends and extended family. We never really go out, to movies or anything else. If I have to do without in order for my sisters to have, this is what I am committed to doing.
I do not qualify for Social Security survivor's benefits because I was over the age of 18 at the time of my mother's death. Since my sisters are both minors, they qualify. I put the funds into each of their savings accounts so they can attend college after high school graduation.
Up until last year, I had only a grant from the government that paid for 25% of my school tuition. I also took out student loans, but I was limited to two or three classes every semester, and would go to the library to check out textbooks to use. Still, I managed to get honors every semester.
Last year I submitted my essay to the LIFE Foundation, and won a scholarship which allowed me to take the rest of the classes I need to get my bachelors of science in social work. I'll graduate on May 5th of this year, summa cum laude. That will make me the first one in my family to graduate college. I've applied to graduate school, but I have to take off a year, because you have to get experience before you get your master's. Hopefully, I'll be able to attend school in the fall of 2014.
It Could Have Been Different
People get grief wrong: You don't move on, you move through it. One day you realize that it is reality. It's almost been two years, and I wouldn't say we've "dealt" with my mother's death yet. Some days it's just not real.
Death is something we tend not to think about and not to prepare for. My mom had a small life insurance policy with her job, but lost it when she was laid off. Because she was only 49, I don't think she ever thought that it was something she needed.
If my mom had had life insurance and made preparations for her death, my life would be completely different. We would have been able to bury her according to her wishes instead of settling for cremation paid for by the state. We would still be living in our family home with our pets and in our same neighborhood we grew up in. I would not have to struggle to provide my sisters with the basic daily needs others don't think twice about.
I am determined to make my mom proud and be the first in our family to graduate college. It is now my responsibility to see that my sisters have as close to a normal life as possible. I am their role model. We are the survivors of the unthinkable, and we are going to make it.
With additional writing by Alden Wicker
More From Learnvest:
Retirement, Savings or Debt? How to Prioritize Financial Goals
How the American Dream is Keeping Us Broke
My Abusive Marriage Destroyed Me and My Finances
Take the first steps to building your portfolio.View Course »