My relationship with my mother was strained and complicated, so it's gonna take me awhile to process the loss in an emotional sense, but what I wanted to talk about here is the more practical side of dealing with a death in the family.
The one thing that has become abundantly clear to me over the course of the past week or so is the importance of communicating with your loved ones about this sort of thing - even if there's no indication that you're gonna die any time soon.
I realize that contemplating our own mortality is a place that most of us would just rather not have to go, but believe me, one or two brief conversations can save your family untold amounts of distress during a time when they're already reeling emotionally.
At any rate, here is a brief list of suggestions that I'd like to toss out into the ether, in the hopes that someone, somewhere, sometime might benefit from what my brother and I have been through this past week or so.
Wherever You Are, You Need a Support System.
My mother could best be described as fiercely independent. She wasn't real big on family & friends, and enjoyed the adventure of moving to a new place where she knew not a soul.
While I admired the adventuresome spirit, her independent streak started to take on a new dimension in the past few years. A year ago she ended up in the hospital for a few weeks and didn't even tell anybody until she'd been home for a month!
Now, I'd be the last person to suggest that everyone ought to be a social butterfly, but I do think that it's important to maintain some sort of a support network. Every indication is that my mom passed quietly in her sleep, and for that I am grateful. And thanks to a watchful neighbor her absence was noticed in only a week. But the thought of all the other ways it could have gone is truly horrifying.
So I guess I'd like to suggest that if you live alone, don't have many personal connections, and have any sort of a chronic health problem, you might really want to investigate one of those medical alert systems.
Funeral Pre-Planning? Kinda Sorta Maybe.
The funeral industry is really into selling pre-paid funeral plans. The idea is lovely... you make all the decisions ahead of time, take care of it all financially, and spare your loved ones the expense and distress of planning a funeral. The reality of it can be a bit um... different.
Now, under certain circumstances I think this sort of a pre-arranged thing can make a lot of sense. If you've got a pretty good indication that you're on your way out, then I think this sort of thing is a great way to handle it.
If, however, you're not planning on leaving anytime soon, you'd probably be better served by either purchasing a small life insurance policy, or setting some money aside in a "funeral trust" and leaving the details up to your survivors. But for God's sake, whatever you do, let someone know about it.
In our case, Mom had purchased a funeral plan way back when we were kids after my parents divorced, but didn't tell anyone about it.
The only way we even knew that the plan existed was because I happened to remember her meeting with the salesman back when I was a kid. To further complicate matters, she left no record of having purchased a plot or any other sort of cemetery property to go with it. For the record - the funeral is the cheap part, burial or interment plots are where the real money is.
On the surface, this all seems like a good idea, but in reality, all it ended up doing was to create a lot of confusion and throw my brother into a complete tailspin trying to use the plan do decipher what her last wishes would have been.
His conclusion upon reading the plan (which was the industry "standard plan" back then and included things like casket, embalming, hair and makeup) was that Mom really wanted an open casket funeral with a ground burial here in Denver.
That's all fine, except for the fact that Mom died out of state, and it's really not possible to embalm a body when it's been nearly a week since the death occurred... and it's extremely complicated and morbid to even transport one at that point!
The fact that we couldn't find any record of cemetery arrangements further complicated the matter. Mom had lived in several different cities since the time the plan was purchased, so this left us calling cemeteries all over the country in a fruitless effort to find out if she'd purchased a plot somewhere!
When all was said and done, it was gonna cost somewhere between $15-$20K (in addition to this "pre-paid plan") to have the body prepared, transported and buried... and even then, the phrases "significant odor" and "seepage of fluids" kept being bandied about in a rather unpleasant manner. Oy!
Finally, with the help of my father and a few of her close friends, we were able to convince my brother that Mom didn't have anything against cremation - she had her own parents cremated - and that her intent in purchasing the plan was to save us the heartache and expense of making her final arrangements, not to guilt us into $20K of funeral heroics thirty-some-odd-years later!
At any rate, I implore you to please, please let your loved ones know how you feel about this sort of thing. If you have strong feelings about burial, cremation or any other aspect of final arrangements, let them know. Or if you don't care, let them know that too!
On Wills, Executors, Power of Attorney, and Next of Kin.
We still don't know if Mom had a will or not. If she did have one, she didn't tell anyone and certainly didn't give anyone a copy of it. In a certain sense, this isn't really a problem because she told numerous family and friends that her intent would be to make my brother the executor and divide her assets evenly between he and I, which is what the law would have happen anyhow.
But here's the catch. If you don't have a certified copy of the will to show that you are the executor, even the next of kin has very limited access to the estate of a deceased person.
So not only could we not get into her property to search for a will or safe deposit key, the bank couldn't even tell us if she had a safe deposit box!
Now, several years ago Mom had given my brother limited power of attorney and made him a signer on several of her bank accounts in the event that she ended up in a nursing home or otherwise unable to handle her affairs, so I think she thought she had her bases covered. However, as it turns out, power of attorney, and any ability to access her bank or financial records ended immediately upon her death. Good Gawd!
Soooo, to make a long story short, my brother had to fly out there to try to sort some of this out. With the death certificate and a copy of his birth certificate to prove that he was next of kin, he was at least able to get access to her home to get a cleaning crew in there to deal with the "bodily fluids" and "significant odor" (trust me, I've had enough morbid conversations this past week to last a lifetime.)
He hasn't had any luck locating her papers, but at least the emergency part of it has been dealt with. The next step is to get a court order appointing him as temporary administrator of the estate.
However, unless he can prove that her estate is likely to be solvent (which is a complete unknown at this point) his powers will be extremely limited, and there will have to be a hearing to appoint him as executor - which, of course, can't take place for another 20 days, so he'll have to fly back out there next month some time.
Still not sure how we're supposed to come up with the estate's estimated net worth when we don't have access to any of her financial records. The catch-22's here are just mind boggling!
So, that's been my life for the past 10 days or so. The thing about it is that none of it needed to be as difficult as it was. A tiny bit of planning and communication could have made the entire process much easier in both a logistical and emotional sense.
I never thought that I needed a will since I don't have any kids to worry about, but my thinking on this topic has changed dramatically. As soon as things calm down to a dull roar, I'll be having one drawn up, and you can bet your boots that whichever unlucky family member agrees to be executor will have access to the thing.
Anyhow, I guess the moral of this story is that as uncomfortable as it may be to talk about this sort of thing, it's vastly preferable to the alternative. So do yourself and your loved ones a big favor, and deal with some of this stuff now. They'll thank you for it later.