I lost my mother suddenly to an accident and my father to dementia after a lengthy hospice stay. Hospice workers told me that sudden death is more difficult for the family to accept and that although a slow agonizing passing is harder on the person who’s dying, it is easier for the family to manage, plan for and cope with.
I would like to share what I learned from both experiences because many have yet to live through such tragedies or have already been affected by the loss of one or both parents and could certainly add to my list.
What you need in the event of a family death
- Today, make a list of whom to call at the time of passing, and construct it in consultation with your parent, as difficult as that may be. I sat down with my husband before his last trip to Hungary to make such a list, and although he safely returned, I still have the list on hand: the military affairs office, the government personnel office, etc., and all the required documents needed for our estate.
- Get your papers in order, on file and put them in a safe place for immediate reference. Make a living will and health care directive, give a trusted person the power of attorney, and make sure insurance beneficiaries are up to date. I discovered that my dad had an insurance policy dated 1931 for $1,000, but it took me an entire day to track down the fact that the company had gone through three mergers and then declared bankruptcy, so such a policy was now worthless.
- To avoid a costly probate, encourage your parents to put your name on their bank accounts, their deeds, their investment portfolios, their houses, their cars, their boats, etc. Transfer of property is then simple and closure of their estate can be handled by you to avoid many legal costs.
- Get enough death certificates. Even to terminate some phone services and cable TV contracts, you’ll need death certificates. I was grateful I had ordered 20.
- Never underestimate the importance of CPR. Older people frequently fall, and 80% of these falls occur in their homes, particularly in the bathroom.
- Never judge people’s differing reactions to grief. A close colleague of mine nursed his wife for two years following the discovery of a brain tumor. The afternoon of her funeral, he played 18 holes of golf amid criticism that “he didn’t care.” For him, it was a quiet way to reflect and a release from two years of intensive 24/7 caregiving. I grew angry at my own brother who shortly after my mother’s funeral drove to a local marina to look at sailboats. But to him, it was probably a way of connecting with her memory for the two of them loved boating and fishing.
- You will never be able to predict who will donate to charity in your loved one’s name if you designate such in the obituary. I was surprised when the hospice notified me of the names of people who gave money in Dad’s name. Even a dear pastor friend who pledged money never delivered but a long-lost niece of Dad’s gave a sizeable check to the hospice. I won’t ever forget that gesture. And I’ve been amazed at the sensitive, caring individuals who reached out to me in my time of sorrow and need. A poignant sympathy note came from a former student of mine who found out about the death of my mother. She wrote, “I’ve always been told that it’s better to say something than nothing at all when people are going through hard times. I don’t know quite what to say, but maybe it will help you through these difficult times to know that I’m thinking about you. You probably know now that there is no influence so powerful as that of a mother.” I still have that condolence note and share it often with others who are coping with the loss of a mother.
- Try to intellectualize the experience by reading books that offer comfort and solace or if needed, attend therapy sessions with others going through the same experience. Two works that particularly helped me through my own grieving were “Motherless Daughters” by Hope Edelman (1994) and “Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul” by Jack Canfield. I found a great deal of comfort in favorite passages and pasted them around my bedroom and over my parents’ photos. “You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die or when. You can only decide how you’re going to live,” by Joan Baez was a favorite of mine. Remember, too, that even caregivers themselves often seek therapy to deal with loss. Geriatric nurse Lupe Bennett of the Cedarview Care Center in Owatonna, MN, lost her husband, was in a severe automobile accident with multiple injuries and survived cancer. To cope, she immersed herself in her work and engaged in a demanding physical fitness program. When she collapsed due to exhaustion and became severely depressed, her doctor told her that she needed the very therapy she was prescribing to her elderly patients and their families. Now that she is availing herself of such services, she’s become a more content person who offers exceptional care to others because she finally took care of herself.
- Budget for funeral costs now. In spite of the expose by Jessica Mitford in “The American Way of Death Revisited” (2000), the cost of today’s funerals stresses most family budgets. When my local funeral home quoted me $8,000 for a simple cremation, I contacted the state’s Cremation Society and received impeccable service and an attractive bronze urn for $2,000, so I donated the difference to charity. I sent a check to a scholarship fund which my dad would have wholeheartedly approved of, I also gave money to the local Veterans’ Association, and to the therapy dog and her owner whose dog Dad held as he breathed his last breath. However, it still came as a total surprise that the gravedigger charged $400 to dig the hole that contained the urn and that the cemetery charged $300 to mow around the military marker after it was set even though my family has owned the cemetery plots for 50 years. Some cemeteries charge an annual upkeep fee and it is not unusual to charge the family additional fees to close the burial site after they have paid to have it opened. Thus, sit down with your parent and/or spouse, ask them what their burial wishes are and budget for them now as these costs will only escalate over time. Then too, avail yourself of VA benefits should your loved one have served.
- In the final days of loss, sign on to hospice care as soon as possible as their services are covered by Medicare.
- Return to your routine as soon as possible. When coping with death’s aftermath, find solace in the company of friends, family and even strangers who sense that you need a hug or a smile.
- Take care of yourself to stay healthy and be able to cope with bill-paying, making arrangements for the closing of the estate, and writing thank you notes to those who reached out to you. In this time of roller-coastal emotions, private moments of crying over shared memories and sorting the clothes and belongings of one whose life meant so much to you, take time to lunch with a friend, shop at your favorite store, visit a shut-in, volunteer at a soup kitchen, take a few days off to explore a new site for rejuvenation, or do what a dear 80-year-old friend of mine did after the loss of her husband of fifty years – she booked a cruise, took off by herself, met new friends, traveled to a country she always wanted to see and, although lonely at first, she realized that her life had to go on and that she had to make the best of a difficult situation, something all of us have had or will have to do.