By Katherine Michalak
He’d been growing weaker and we all saw it. In 2008, my father suffered a massive stroke, which left him paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak. He spent the next nine years battling his own body as he tackled various rehab routines and struggled with physiological setbacks. A case of pneumonia put him in the hospital again in May 2017 and slowly his other systems began to falter. A few weeks later, Daddy passed away peacefully with our family surrounding him, bearing witness to his graceful and proud surrender. We stumbled out of the hospital in a sorrowful haze.
The next morning, we found ourselves sitting in the church office with our reverend, attempting to plan a memorial service. Questions circled the room: “We need to have the programs printed up and get everything scheduled. What hymns would you like sung? Are there some favorite Scriptures he’d want read or used for a sermon?” We searched each other’s faces for some clue and shook our heads in solemn recognition that in our exhaustion and fog of grief we couldn’t recall a single passage or verse, or note of music. And there was no time to discuss the options. We hastily looked through a list the church kept on file, noting recommended readings and songs, selecting ones that seemed appropriate or jogged a memory.
That meeting wrapped, we dashed off in separate directions—my mother to the funeral home, my siblings to coordinate other arrangements, and me to write the obituary before the newspaper’s 4 p.m. deadline. One of the most important men in my life and I had 90 minutes to summarize his incredible presence on the planet in less time than it takes for me to get my hair colored. Once again, my mind went blank. I couldn’t remember the name of the little town where Daddy was born or his military rank or the many accolades he’d received during his esteemed medical career. Letters and words became a cryptic jumble on the computer screen as my hands shook and tears clouded my eyes.
A few days after the funeral, my mother received a call from one of her credit card companies. Someone had attempted identity fraud using my father’s information. We quickly sprang to action and spent several days securing various accounts. The duties, tasks, and errands seemed to mount exponentially, compounding our collective grief with a fearful sense of urgency.
My father’s death landed a heavy blow on my family, but I am still astounded at how relatively unprepared we were to handle the logistics that followed. His health had been compromised for years, so we obviously knew this was coming. By avoiding focused conversations about “life after Dad,” we inadvertently added another layer of stress. Losing a loved one is devastating no matter when or how it happens. But with some basic planning and discussion, perhaps some of the more difficult tasks could be simplified.
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
We all know how important it is to have a legal will and medical directives, but what about documenting preferences for honoring your life? Even if you think, “Oh, I don’t really care, don’t make a big fuss.” It would be an incredible help to your family, friends, and loved ones to simply write it all down—no heavy details required, just an outline or list of your thoughts, such as:
- Location and type of burial
- Form of service or gathering
- Special flowers
- Music selections
- Significant poems, quotes or spiritual readings
- Charity or organization for memorial donations
This exercise could be completely private or an opportunity for a meaningful family discussion, full of nostalgic anecdotes and touching memories. Once you’ve made the list, file it with your will or other important paperwork and make sure it’s labeled clearly. If it’s possible to prearrange some elements, such as purchasing an interment plot or funeral insurance, do so. During such a stressful time, clarity will be appreciated.
Immediately after the passing of a loved one, contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) on behalf of the deceased. Unfortunately, identity fraud plagues our modern society and deceased individuals become prime targets. According to the American Association of Retired Persons, thieves aware of the administrative time lag in processing death records regularly attempt to open accounts using the Social Security numbers and personal information of the departed. Scams most commonly originate from trolling obituaries for details but also include nefarious cons involving hospitals, morgues, and funeral homes. Alerting the SSA, a credit-reporting bureau, and the Department of Motor Vehicles will flag the name of your loved one in order to curtail fraud.
A NOTABLE LIFE
Writing a testimony to the life of a family member or friend presents a daunting task to the author, particularly under duress. However, a full obituary may not be necessary or prudent. Authorities recommend keeping the public obituary brief and free of any specific details, which might give hints for security breach—place of birth, schools, parents’ full names, etc. Instead, post a brief public announcement of service times or memorial details. Save the more eloquent biography for exclusive resources such as the funeral program bulletin, alumni magazines, and newsletters for church, clubs or professional organizations.
ALL ON PAPER
Upon reporting a death, make sure to request several copies of the official death certificate. Yes, several, maybe even dozens. This may sound morbid, but you will need all of them. For almost every account and policy changed, closed, transferred or canceled, you will be required to submit a valid death certificate supporting your claim.
These include adjustments to:
- Bank and investment accounts
- Credit cards
- Insurance policies
- Travel/mileage points
- Club memberships
- Transferring deeds of ownership
WHERE THERE’S A WILL …
Probate procedures vary according to circumstances and the size of estate. Consulting an estate attorney provides important guidance through the process. The state of Georgia does not require a court-supervised legal proceeding if all heirs and beneficiaries are in agreement, if no debt exists (or creditors agree to other arrangements) or in cases where no will is present. However, if an executor has been named, that person is responsible for settling all aspects of the estate—from asset appraisal and accounting, to paying debts and taxes, to selling property and distributing funds to heirs. Finalizing settlements can take months or longer, including time for legal notice to be published in local newspapers. According to Attorney Stephen M. Scriber, of Scriber Law Group, the majority of estate administration issues stem from a lack of understanding of the legal process and poor coordination. Scriber says, “issues finding the accounts, knowing what investments exist and what debts are owed, and finding estate documents all boil down to organization. It is critically important in estate planning to make everything as locatable and straightforward as possible.”
SOMEBODY TO LEAN ON
Please let people assist you with some tasks. Helping others becomes a healing act and, most of the time, when people offer to do something for you, they really mean it. Even the smallest chore might be a welcome distraction for sympathetic friends or family mourning in their own way. Allow others to pitch in to:
- Make necessary phone calls and schedule appointments
- Keep record of condolence cards, gifts, and flowers
- Manage meals and grocery shopping
- Handle errands such as pet care, laundry/dry cleaning,
- yard maintenance
- Write thank you notes
- Coordinate childcare and carpools
- Organize paperwork and files
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
Don’t feel pressured to “go back to normal” after the details are handled. Managing the logistics and administrative duties are as emotionally draining as every other part of grief. In fact, you may have mentally postponed your deeper grieving process in order to stay on track with the to-do list. Therapist Annette Hodgson, LCSW, counsels, “Grief is not linear. It’s a different experience for every person. Research has shown that the stages of grief really don’t exist. A person is forever changed and a new normal has to be established. Each person should be encouraged to honor his or her own experience of the grief journey … a journey that has a definite start but no end and no rules.” Accept and expect that there will be unforeseen challenges ahead and try to plan accordingly:
- What are the new routines for spouses or other family members?
- Who might need some professional grief counseling or support from a church ministry?
- When and where can a vacation or change of scenery
- be arranged?
- How will you handle upcoming milestones, birthdays or holidays?
Talking about death need not be awkward. Attitude is everything and when we face the fear of discussing the inevitable, we can feel more confident in enjoying the time we still have together. Each of us leaves a unique legacy, which impacts our family and community; securing that legacy keeps the individual spirit alive.
American Association of Retired Persons, aarp.com
Annette Hodgson, East Cobb Center for Therapy, annettehodgsonfamilycounseling.com
Social Security Administration, ssa.gov
Stephen M. Scriber, Scriber Law Group, scriberlaw.com