Friday, September 27, 2013

Practical Advice on a Topic We'd All Rather Avoid

So, my mom died suddenly last week. Well, actually she died the week before, but since she had moved out to Washington state, away from her friends and family, it was about a week before anyone realized something was wrong and contacted the authorities - more on that lovely topic later. She had a number of health problems so it wasn't totally unexpected, still it was quite sudden.

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.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


I loves me a good natural disaster. Blizzards, hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, volcanoes, meteors, and of course floods - I love them all.

Seriously, I think I'm probably the only person in a landlocked state with no friends, relatives or financial interests along the coast who monitors the National Hurricane Center on a regular basis, just to find out if I'm gonna get to watch storm coverage any time soon!

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I wish pain and suffering on anyone, there's just something about mother nature rearing up and stating in no uncertain terms that she is in charge, that I find irresistibly compelling.

And it's not just real life events either, I'm a total sucker for disaster movies... I just love them. It doesn't really matter how improbable the plot, or how terrible the acting or special effects, I simply can't help myself!

Of course disaster movies offer the added benefit that the evil bad guys who offended mother earth in the first place are always punished. I just love how the intrepid scientist always manages to survive by the skin of his teeth, while the money grubbing bad guy gets swallowed up by the volcano or whatever the disaster du jour might be.

As you might expect, my love for all things disaster extends to post-apocalyptic dystopian films as well. Recently Netflix (which has obviously got me pegged) suggested that I might enjoy the TV drama "Revolution" where some sort of man made calamity has caused the rules of physics to be turned on their heads and all electricity has ceased to function.

Never mind the fact that the entire premise is utterly ridiculous - human bodies, after all, rely on electrical processes to function - I fear I am totally addicted to this show. It's sorta like a disaster that just keeps coming.

Speaking of disasters that just keep coming, you may have heard on the news that my fair state has been suffering with some of the worst flooding in its history. While conditions in my neighborhood are unremarkable (I was just thankful to get some rain on the garden) folks to the north and east of here are completely inundated.

I have to say that I'm completely exhausted just from watching the round the clock coverage of the disaster. The area north of Denver received an amazing amount of rainfall - over 18 inches in some places - which is more than we usually get in an entire year! Most of the water fell in the foothills, causing dangerous situations in the mountain towns and canyons.

Of course now, the bulk of the water has flowed into the South Platte river swamping towns on the plains to our east.

The damage is rather incredible, with a vast number of roads, bridges and railroad lines taken out, not to mention the loss of property, farmland and life. There are numerous towns and areas that are completely cut off, and the National Guard has been shuttling people out by helicopter because thousands of folks are isolated by the damage to the infrastructure.

So, the obvious suffering here really causes me to wonder... what's with me? Why am I so attracted to this sort of thing? Do I have some sort of a death wish? Am I a mean spirited person who actually enjoys watching other people suffer?

You know, when it comes right down to it, I think it's this: When these sorts of disasters happen, all of the form over substance bullshit that so consumes this society just seems to melt away, and suddenly people become much more human.

It's like people come out of their collective fog for a brief moment, and suddenly remember what life is supposed to be about.

We suddenly realize that the purpose of a house is to provide shelter, not to show off how wealthy you are... that clothing is important because it protects your body from the elements, not because it's "cute" or "fashionable"... that telephones are for communicating, not playing endless hours of Candy Crush... that food is designed to nourish our bodies, it's not simply for a quick sugar buzz... and that we are all inevitably bound together by forces that are so much larger than anything we can conjure up.

Of course, none of it will last. Pretty soon life will return to "normal". The news will stop being a place where people turn to get vital information, and go back to being a place where we report on the release of the latest iPhone, or the antics of some stupid celebrity, or god knows what other idiocy.

We'll forget that our government and public officials work tirelessly day in and day out to provided us with infrastructure and services that we are completely dependent on, but which most of us simply take for granted.

People will stop helping each other, and we'll be back to the social climbing, backstabbing, divisive vitriol that we're all so used to.

But for the moment I think I'm just gonna send up a little prayer for the folks in peril, and rejoice in the fact that sanity and compassion have made a brief comeback.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Mission for the Month - Bedtime!

So, I mentioned a few posts back that I'm on a mission to take better care of myself. A HUGE part of this for me is trying to make sure that I get enough quality sleep.

I'm sure I've, ahem, mentioned this before... but I am a hopeless night owl. I have tried to reform SO. MANY. TIMES. that it isn't even funny.

I've read that the night owl vs. morning lark thing is sort of a set phenomenon, and I'm not exactly trying to change my essential nature, I just would like to feel like I'm living in the same timezone as most of the people around me.

So, for the past week or so, I've been trying to look at the problem from an objective point of view, and I've actually been able to identify a few patterns that seem to be contributing to the problem.

I seem to have all of my "chores" stacked up either at the very beginning or very end of the day. I'm not quite sure how it ended up this way, but I've somehow managed to give myself a HUGE list of things that I have to do before I can go to bed each night, and then another big list first thing in the morning. This leads to trouble in several ways.

First of all, it just takes several hours to complete everything that's on my night time list. I have to feed & medicate the cats, change all the water bowls, clean all the litter boxes, wash the dishes, clean the kitchen, take out the garbage, and try to get any projects that I've started to a decent stopping place. This doesn't even include my own personal bedtime routine like brushing my teeth, taking a bath, yadda, yadda, yadda!

My conclusion is that this is just WAY TOO MUCH to try to do before bed! And what often happens is that since it feels like way too much, I tend to avoid it and put it off. So I end up not even starting on the night time routine until one in the morning... and then I'm trying to hurry through it because I know I've blown it again... and then it's like three in the morning before I get to bed, and of course, I can't sleep at that point because I'm all wound up from trying to hurry through it all.

So I finally get to sleep around 4 or 5, which means that I end up sleeping until noon - of course, I usually get woken up at least once or twice during the morning hours because somebody's mowing the lawn, or the phone rings, or cats are hungry, or something. So I finally drag myself out of bed at noon, and before I'm even up, I feel like I'm behind, and I have to hit the ground with both feet running.

Of course, this doesn't exactly make me want to get out of bed, because as soon as I do I'm thrust into "I'm late" mode again, and I'm rushing around feeding cats, cleaning litter boxes, cooking breakfast, and feeling like a complete and utter failure.

This is obviously NOT WORKING! So, instead of just beating myself up about how I'm a terrible person (like I usually do) I'm thinking that perhaps I need a different approach.

Now, generally in the past when I have tried to cure myself of this problem I've gone about it by creating a bunch of rules that I have to follow. In other words, I tell myself that I have to be more diligent about finishing things and have to push harder to get myself do all of my chores.

But, since forcing myself into a box never really seems to work for me, I've decided to try tackling this from a new angle. Instead of focusing on making myself do a bunch of stuff, I'm going to focus on the taking care of myself part.

So I'm going to give myself the gift of having evening time to relax and wind down, even if this means leaving some of the chores for the next day.

Soooo, from now on, after 9pm is me time!

No more evening projects or chores - there's plenty of other time to do all of that stuff. And maybe, just maybe if I allow myself time to relax and settle down, I'll actually be able to go to bed and sleep at a decent hour!

AND... when I get up I'm going to allow myself an hour or so to enjoy the morning, drink my tea and relax into the day instead of jumping up and starting the race again.

I don't know if this will work or not, and I'm sure it's gonna take my body some time to adjust to the change, but I did actually wake up this morning feeling calm and relaxed. And letting myself have some time to wake up before I jumped into work mode actually let me approach it all with a much more positive attitude. I didn't even resent having to clean the litter boxes! Now THAT'S a miracle!

So has anybody else out there ever struggled with this sort of thing? I'm curious to know how you've approached it.