by Karen Rowan, MA
You will die. I will die. Someone will grieve for us until they fear their heart will break from it. That someone's name just came into your mind, the person you love so much that their loss would break you, too.
Our mom lived as though she was never going to die. Nine years ago, on a cold February day, with no warning at all, we found her slumped over her computer in her home, a half-finished email on the screen. No diagnosis, no prior symptoms, just total heart failure as the first sign of heart disease. The EMTs performed valiantly, but no amount of CPR would have been successful.
After the shock, my three siblings and I realized we had to start organizing her affairs. It was a monumental task. We found a folder on her computer desktop labeled "funeral." Maybe she had thought about starting to plan it. It contained one Bible verse and nothing else. Worse, after we scoured her papers and computer files, we realized she had made no financial arrangements other than a life insurance policy. We found no personal will. Nor was there a professional will with instructions for her private counseling practice.
Our only starting point was a typed list of passwords to every single account she had ever created, and a printed list of all of her contacts over the past 30 years.
Mom had been a family therapist. Her four children had to close her practice, even though we were not legally allowed to see anything confidential. She had left no plan, no instructions. We asked a colleague of hers we knew when we were young to go through file cabinets and contact former clients, starting with the ones who had appointments that week. Without intending to, we stumbled across and intercepted communications we should not have seen, but the cleaning and purging had to be done by someone.
Mom and our stepdad had been married for seventeen years. He knew only that she wanted to be cremated, but no other details. On the recommendation of a neighbor, we chose a funeral home. It was a terrible experience. There was unavoidable trauma, like driving to the city morgue to get death certificates and delivering them to the insurance agent and banker and planning a funeral during the worst snow and ice storm in a decade. There was also avoidable trauma, like picking her ashes up before the funeral and being asked for payment on the spot before we could leave.
Then came the trauma of closing out a life with no help from the deceased, searching for bank accounts, credit cards, and other online memberships to cancel. She kept everything. We found clothes in many sizes and styles, seemingly every journal she ever wrote since high school. We found dozens of mismatched socks. Ironically, there were books on organization. We hauled away carloads of clothes and shoes and donated them to thrift shops. The local library permits a maximum of five boxes of books donated at a time. We made many, many, trips.
The project of finding new homes for four rooms of books and three closets full of clothes was not something my mother would have left for us to do had she realized these things:
My step-mother watched all four of us adult children break under the unendurable pressure of losing our mom so unexpectedly. She saw us heartbroken, body broken, walking zombie-like through our lives. She and my dad asked what they could do to ease our pain, and we immediately came up with two requests.
We told them we could not do holidays. We could not make holidays happen the way our mom had, nor could our step-father. So this amazing step-mom invited our mom’s second husband for Christmas and Thanksgiving, for grandkids' birthdays, for Labor Day and Memorial Day and the 4th of July. She carried that for us.
Second, we asked them, bluntly, not to do to us what our mother had done. We begged them not to put us through the agony of wading through piles of saved junk mail to find bank statements, not to make us guess passwords, not to make us responsible for decisions either important or trivial that could have been made in advance.
They heard us. They went through the steps of hiring an advisor, gathering paperwork, and thinking through what the days after their deaths would be like for us and for her three adult children.
She and Dad did all this because of our pain, and to keep her three children from experiencing the same pain, and not because they believed their planning would be needed anytime sooner than 30 years or so.
And then, it was needed
Our step-mom passed away six days after she was diagnosed with cancer. It was not as sudden as our mother's death, but it might as well have been. She was too ill to have gotten any affairs in order in those six days, but planning ahead meant she didn't have to.
Naturally, her death was as devastating to her children, our step-siblings, as our mother's was to the four of us. It was as devastating to my dad as Mom's death had been to her husband. Twelve of us, seven adult children and five grandchildren, found ourselves in a parallel situation, doubled over with grief, now for two moms and two grandmas. This time, however, we were able to spare her children what we had been through. We volunteered to help our dad take care of closing out her affairs so they wouldn't have to.
What was different this time was that the paperwork required nothing more than a few phone calls. We easily set up meetings with the right people, changed bank account information, and transferred retirement accounts from her name to his using information from the file box. We started a shared Google document to keep track of who was working on each task. She and my dad had even talked about funeral plans.
It was not easy. Losing her so fast was not remotely easy. Taking care of her affairs was not easy.
But it was easier, thanks to her foresight.
If you have to abruptly leave your children motherless or fatherless, your death will knock them off balance in unpredictable ways, even as adults. Your birthday will come and they may not get out of bed. Mother's Day will bring a barrage of messages from everyone in the world reminding them that you are not there. They may drink too much. They may sleep too much. They may gamble too much. They may feel like they have been tossed from a capsized ship. They will have nightmares. No matter how you die, they will feel guilty. There will be things they wish they had said and things they wish you had said. This much is unavoidable, but there are some things that are not.
Think of all the ways you showed your love for them. You patched up skinned knees and sat up late waiting for them and held them after a bad breakup. You tried to protect them from every kind of pain that you could their entire lives. You have been there for every bad thing and tried to make it better. This time, though, you won't be there to ease the worst suffering of their lives.
You can only do that right now.
You don't think you will die without warning. No one does. At best, you are in denial. At worst, you may have even said something flippant like, "I won't be here. Why would I care?” Right when we, the ones you love, are going through the worst loss of our lives, you won't be here.
Sure, it is a reasonable expectation that our elderly parents will pre-decease us and that we will eventually recover. That is how it is supposed to be with elderly parents.
But these two moms died at 56 and 59.
You cannot predict or, normally, prevent an unexpected death. You can, however, take some steps to make sure the grief of losing you is not compounded by emotional and physical strains to pack up your life.
The person who came to mind as you read my first paragraph is the same person who will be searching through the paperwork of your life. Will she be thanking you for making the task tolerable? Will he be wondering why anyone needs that many mismatched socks? Demonstrating the massive love you feel for that person starts with one simple step. Throw the socks away. Do it now.
Editor's note: For a technology solution to finding the accounts and passwords in a deceased person's computer, see our December 5, 2018 product review, "Death of Person No Longer Means Death of Personal Data."
Karen Rowan, MA, is the owner of "Fluency Fast," a language instruction company for professionals. She is also a mother, a daughter, a step-daughter, a sister, and a step-sister. It is from the experiences from the latter titles that she draws the expertise shared in this story.
©2020 by Rowan Consulting Associates, Inc., Colorado Springs, CO. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in Home Care Technology: The Rowan Report. homecaretechreport.com One copy may be printed for personal use; further reproduction by permission only. firstname.lastname@example.org