While death is an inevitable part of life many of us, myself included, find it difficult to talk about dying and bereavement. This week is Dying Matters Awareness week ( 9 – 15 May 2016) and I’d like to share my own personal experience of bereavement. I’d like to begin with a special welcome to those of you who have had a bereavement and to express my sorrow for your loss. There is no right way to grieve, we all have to find our own way to get through it and this blog is how I’ve got through my first five months.
My mum died of cancer in 2005. We had six months from the diagnosis until her death. My mum, who had nursed my maternal grandmother though cancer, had always said that she didn’t want to know if she was very diagnosed with cancer, so during that time, I never got the chance to talk with my mum about her terminal illness or to find out her final wishes.
My dad died in November 2016. He had been frail and had had a serious heart attack and a cancer scare the year before. We’d got through all that and I was beginning to feel he would live forever. One Friday he was admitted into hospital for something quite minor, was diagnosed as terminally ill and died on the Sunday morning.
Loosing my mum was my first significant bereavement and had been really hard at the time but now that I have lost both parents it feels even harder. I’m in my forties and I feel like an orphaned child, left with a void and emptiness that will never be filled. While at the same time as next of kin, and an only child, the sorting out my dad’s house and his personal affairs legally rests with me. Bereavement is never easy but the finality of going through the contents of my family home and selling it brings an additional layer to the grieving process.
I was with my both my parents when they died. I had never been in the presence of someone who was dying before and I had no idea what to expect when I was with my mum. I just had this intuitive feeling that if possible I wanted to be with both my parents when they died. From getting the phone call to arriving at her nursing home took about 3 hours but it felt like 3 million, the journey was unbearable. I am so thankful that the nursing staff made that phone call and as I was able to spend my last afternoon with her before she was sedated to ease her pain. She died the following morning, one of the nurses had told us the last sense to go is a person’s hearing so I held my mum’s hand and talked to her until she passed away. I was also with my dad but I felt totally unprepared for his death that I was so tearful I couldn’t talk to him and was only able to hold his hand. I feel so privileged that I was with both my parents in their final moments and this has brought me comfort, especially as I know other people who have wanted to be there for their own loved one and have not been that fortunate.
Afterwards there were so many feelings including disbelieve that my dad had gone, overwhelming sadness that he was no longer with us and a feeling of utter emptiness. With my dad the thing that struck me the most was the suddenness of it all. I had 24 hours to get my head round that my dad was dying, I still find it hard to believe that he left us so suddenly.
For me one of the hardest things to deal with was that there had been no discussions about death. With both my parents neither of them wanted to talk about their terminal illness and I respected their wishes. From the practical questions such as finding out where they wanted to be buried to the more profound and personal things that were left unsaid, in both cases this has made their passings even harder for me to come to terms with.
Support: One of the things that has helped me get through this is the kindness and compassion of others. The emotional and practical support from friends and family with messages on condolences cards, texts, phone calls and meeting up, was really appreciated. Expect a few surprises, sometimes the people who you are closest to are not necessarily the ones that will offer the most support. Consider professional support if you are finding things difficult.
The funeral: I decided to see both my parents at undertakers before the funeral. I had gone with my dad to view my mum’s body and I had found it very unsettling. When my dad died I decided to go and although it still wasn’t easy I felt better prepared as I had been through it before. On both occasions I got a lot of comfort in seeing that they had been well take care of. At the funeral to be honest throughout much of the service I was just sobbing loudly, but I was really touched by the people who attended and shared their memories of my dad.
Taking Time Out to Grief: When my mum died I took time off work while she was ill but quickly went back to work after her death. This time as my dad’s death was so sudden it’s only after the funeral that I have started to process what has happened.
Notifying People of the Death: Alongside dealing with the grief there’s a lot of practical things that needs to be sorted out. The death needed to be registered, a funeral needed to be arranged and there are so many people, both friends, family and organisations, who need to be informed of the death. In the UK there are useful and clearly written guidelines on the government website about what to do when someone dies.
Many times the practical tasks felt totally overwhelming. Other times I got comfort from this as there is a sequence of practical tasks to follow, for example (in the UK) you need the medical certificate from the GP or hospital before you can register the death and likewise it’s only when you register the death you get the documents you need for the funeral, and for me, having some order at a time when my feelings were all over the place was helpful as it gave me something to focus on other than the intense feelings of grief.
Sorting Out the paperwork: One of the things I found really difficult was going through their papers to try to work out what they had and which companies I need to notify. My mum had taken the lead in managing the family finances so when she died I searched the house to find bills, documents, etc, so I could work out which organisations needed to be contacted. This was hard to do on two account, firstly it didn’t feel right going through their personal and private papers and secondly it was very time consuming.
After my mum died we bought my dad a folder for him to keep his bills and when he passed away it was much easier to work out which companies we needed to contact. In the UK the Tell Us Once service, where available, let’s you report the death to most government organisations in one go. However there isn’t a similar service in the private sector.
Contacting Agencies: I had a list of about 25 agencies I needed to contact, some of which needed more than one phone call to sort out. With each company I had to contact them and let them know my dad had died. It’s hard enough saying it once but repeating it over and over again is like rubbing salt into the wound. For the first few weeks it felt like it was a full time job with waiting to get though automated telephone menu systems before finally getting through to a real person. The reception I got from the agencies was very mixed from those who acknowledged the loss and were confident in their companies procedures to those who when I said my dad has just died were very business like and went straight into filling out their forms. With my intense feelings of grief, the response of the person on the other end of the phone or the wording of a letter made all the difference it could make or break my day. An acknowledgement of my dad’s death could give me the strength to work through the other things on my list for that day, while a lack of empathy would leave me feeling like “don’t you have any feelings, didn’t you hear what I just told you my dad has just died”, I was left a sad crumpled mess having to put off the next task until I regained my emotional strength.
This was my experience. There were the Good: British Gas have a bereavement team and bills don’t have to be paid until probate is though, United Utilities Water quickly sent refund and have a policy of not charging the property while it is empty following a bereavement, Tax Office were really helpful and gave useful advice, Department of Works and Pensions, where there had been an overpayment, the letter acknowledged that it was a difficult time and apologised for requesting repayment. The Indifferent Council Tax refund just took ages to come through and the Bad: Unilever Pensions very brisk and business like and no acknowledgement for my loss on the phone but she informed me they would be sending out a bereavement letter, the Post Office expected the telephone bill to be paid immediately but then wouldn’t give refund until probate came through and then the lady at counter seeing the refund letter, probate form and my ID couldn’t work out why I was getting the refund and wanted to discuss with her manager, Nationwide Building Society really helpful initially but when I took the probate letter to the Islington Angel branch I was told they couldn’t see me for a few days but, after I explained to them how difficult it had been for me that day to come in and I had asked if another branch could see me, the cashier arranged for the Highbury Corner branch to see me immediately and they were really helpful, Nationwide House Insurance just sent a thank you letter returning the death certificate and condolences letter came a couple of weeks later, which felt like an afterthought.
Probate: When my mum died everything went to my dad. When my dad died I had to sort out probate, to give me the legal right to sort out his financial affairs and home. In the UK on the government website there is clear step by step guidance about wills and probate. Personally my dad’s estate was relatively straight forward as he has left a will so I decided to do the probate without a solicitor. It was a bit daunting at first but I found with the guidance from the website and a telephone call to the Inheritance Tax and Probate Helpline I was able to do it. I had to go to the solicitors where the original copy of his will was kept, complete the forms and send off a payment (this option was about £1,000 cheaper than if I had used a solicitor). When the paperwork was processed I then had to go to the Probate Registry to swear an oath, this was daunting and very emotional but the procedure was straight forwarded and took about ten minutes. Then about a week later I received the Grant of Representation.
Sorting out the Family Home: This has been the most difficult of all the practical things that I’ve had to do. It’s been very emotional going through my dad’s personal papers and sorting out his belongings. Putting the house up for sale was hard and so too was having to receive telephone calls from the estate agents with ridiculously low offers from property developers who think they can grab a bargain from other people’s grief. In the end I told the estate agent that I only wanted notification of offers above a certain level and I found this helpful.
Physical Effects: I was prepared for the tears and sadness but my grief has also manifested itself physically. I feel for the last few months that my life has been work, sorting out my dad’s things and resting/ sleeping. There doesn’t feel anytime for anything else.
Reminiscing: This has been a particularly difficult thing for me as an only child. When my mum died I could talk with my dad about her and keep her memory alive. However now that dad has gone I have no one to remember and share stories about growing up in my family with.
Special Dates: Christmas, Birthdays and anniversaries times are just the worst as it’s when my pain is at its most intense. This is the single hardest thing for me and one I’m really struggling with. I’m planning annual leave at work to coincide with significant dates so I can just focus on getting through it, marking or remembering the occasion as I want without also having to juggle the pressures of work.
Bereavement is a journey not a destination. We don’t magically get over our loss we just learn to cope with it.
What I’ve Learnt
- Enjoy the Mundane: My regular phone calls with my dad would have him talking about television programmes or other such trivia, and now what I would give to hear my dad talk about anything just so I could hear his voice again. Don’t underrate the everyday as you don’t know how much we all take it for granted until it’s not there anymore.
- A Little Bit of Empathy Goes a Long Way: Whether it’s a friend or family member phoning up out of the blue to check how you are doing or a worker in an agency just acknowledging your grief before they get on with the business it makes you feel less isolated in your grief.
- Life Goes On: Some days it might not feel like it but we have a tremendous amount of resilience. Someone once told me the best way to honour the departed is to have a good and happy life as that’s what our loved ones would have wanted for us.