3 Lessons to Learn Before Your Next Family Emergency

Emergency Ambulance

Are you prepared for an emergency?

On February 9, I got a call from my stepfather that my mother had gone into the hospital.

The bad cold we thought she was suffering from turned out to be acute pneumonia.

Apparently, he had taken her into the hospital just in time. One more day without a doctor’s care, and it would have been too late.

As it was, the situation felt dire. Soon after she entered the hospital, the doctors put her in a medically induced coma to help her heal.

As I write this, my mother is out of the coma and is starting the long process of rehabilitation to get her back on her feet. I have now had the time to reflect on some of the lessons that an emergency has helped me understand.

I hope you do not have to go through a difficult situation to learn them, too:

It’s an Emergency. Use Your Emergency Fund

Like many financially-savvy young couples, my husband and I have an emergency fund set aside with several months worth of living expenses in it. Technically, this fund is there for in case our income dries up for any reason.

And because of that “technical” reason for this fund, I found myself wondering how on earth I would pay for the plane ticket to Baltimore to see my mother in the hospital.

Flying with only a few days’ notice is expensive, and I certainly would not have been able to find the money for the ticket in our budget. But after making myself dizzy trying to find a way to do just that, I realized that I was defining “emergency” too narrowly.

Yes, my husband and I had set the money aside for a loss-of-income emergency. But we may never have one of those. We were having a bona fide family emergency, and we had plenty of money available for me to pay for my plane ticket and associated travel costs.

Just because this wasn’t exactly the reason why we set aside money every paycheck doesn’t mean we can’t use the money for this reason.

From now on, I hope to be in a better position to judge an emergency. I gave myself unnecessary stress because I was so committed to which emergency the fund was there to pay for. In the future, I hope I can simply be comforted by the fact that we have the money, no matter how it’s labeled.

Ask For and Accept Help

While my mother was in intensive care, I could not take my 18 month-old son to see her. Since he was traveling with me, this made it more difficult for me to visit her.

As I was planning the trip, I received an email from my best friend who lives in Connecticut. She offered to come to Baltimore for the weekend to help out in any way she could. She has two children of her own, and my first thought was to say “Thanks, but I’m okay.”

Instead, I told her about my childcare dilemma—and said that I’d love to see her, but only if it wouldn’t be a burden on her family.

My friend and her one-year-old took the train to Baltimore so that she could be there for four days of my trip. Not only did this mean I could visit my mother much more often during my time there, but it gave me incredible comfort to see a good friend.

People are often afraid to ask for help, or accept help that has been offered. Even though my friend and I have known each other for 15 years, part of me worried that she didn’t really mean her offer.

A family emergency is the time to let go of those kinds of worries. You simply can’t do everything yourself, and so it’s time to ask friends and family to help out—and accept the helping hands that are offered.

Don’t Underestimate Organization and Communication

My mother and I are cut from similar cloth. We both believe that we’ll be organized some day. Luckily, my “born organized” sister understands how our minds work. She was the one who was able to locate all of the important information that we would need to handle Mom’s finances while she was out of commission.

Part of this was because Mom had talked to us about (and introduced us to) many of the professionals who handle her financial life—so when in doubt, my sister was able to make a phone call to find more information. Between her and my mother’s accountant and lawyer, we were able to get everything we needed.

This has inspired me to finally tackle the pile of paperwork that sits in several different spots around my office. I have a basic knowledge of where all the important documents are, but that wouldn’t help my family if something were ever to happen to me.

If I can’t get anything else in my life in neatly labeled folders and bins, at least I can get financial, legal, and insurance information organized. I think of it as a gift to my family.

The Bottom Line

I’m now realizing that life is a lot less predictable than I thought. It’s important to do what you can to be ready for life’s surprises.

Having safety nets in place—whether through good financial decisions, good friends, or good organization—will help you weather anything life throws at you.

How have you prepared for your next family emergency? Did you recently go through a family emergency of your own? How did you handle it?

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About Emily Guy Birken

Emily Guy Birken is a former English teacher and respected personal finance blogger. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her engineer husband and two high-energy little boys. She has written four books: The Five Years Before You Retire, Choose Your Retirement, Making Social Security Work For You, and End Financial Stress Now. Emily's thoughts on parenting and life in general are found at The SAHMnambulist.


  1. theamateurfinancier says:

    Sorry to hear about your mother, Emily.  There’s still more I need to do to get my family prepared for a possible emergency, but saving money is definitely one of the items on my list.

  2. We are going through one ourselves right now – and has been a blessing to know we have some in emergency funds. It won’t last us too long – but at least until we can manage through the crisis.

  3. ryanguina says:

    Very scary situation, Emily, but I’m glad to know everything turned out all right. I hope our Mom has a speedy recovery. The tips you lay out are also very important. I need to go through my own paperwork and ensure my wife and I have everything in order, just in case (we moved into our new home a year ago and haven’t updated a few important things, including our estate plan). Definitely something we need to take care of!