Both of my parents died young, and as the oldest daughter I suddenly became the Matriarch of the family. Now if that isn’t a sobering thought, I don’t know what is. In addition, in a previous lifetime I spent a number of years as a bank trust officer, where I had to referee family feuds, find lost assets, and comfort grieving spouses.
Listed below are the seven things I found most useful when experiencing a death in the family.
1. The family secrets will out. Expect to find out things you didn’t know, but always suspected, about your departed parent. That can be entertaining, shocking, and the ultimate freedom trip. See if you can find a family album while you are there to prime the pump. Don’t be surprised if everyone has a different version of the story you remember explicitly. Nod wisely and say often, “I hear you.”
2. Plan to be flexible about arrangements. Although you may opt for the local 5-star motel, be flexible about living together: food, sleeping arrangements, smokers, folks who snore and drink too much. When folks are nervous, and they will be around people they haven’t seen in decades, irritating personal habits will rise to the top like heavy cream on an old-fashioned glass milk bottle.
3. Learn to share. In one family trust I probated, two grown sons (both executives) came to fisticuffs over who got dad’s class ring. Often it is not the bank account (how boring!) but grandmom’s favorite rocker that will cause family feuds rivaling the Hatfields and the McCoys.
When my mom died, we put everything that more than one person wanted in a big pile and took turns choosing. After the choosing, there was the trading back and forth among the (now smaller) individual piles. “I’ll give you ….if you give me back ….” Worked for us.
4. Be prepared for a disagreement over final arrangements. Especially if the parent left no explicit instructions, battles may arise over final remains. If mom or dad is currently living in a retirement home in Florida, say, but the ‘family plot’ is somewhere back in Kansas, and this is the middle of winter, be willing to give a little. See #2 above.
You may be interested to know that according to a local funeral director I talked to, 72% of all final arrangements nowadays are cremations, not burials.
And then the fun begins. Did you see the movie Bonneville, where ashes are scattered all over the landscape? Or, if you don’t want a DIY project, there are folks that will rent you a boat (and crew) to scatter ashes at sea, from a small plane, or hoist them up to 40,000 feet in a weather balloon. Different strokes for different folks.
6. Not everything you remember is still there. I once probated an estate where a lady’s daughter found no assets, just a wooden box filled with safe deposit keys. Over the next 12 months she crisscrossed the country, dumping keys on bank desks and asking “Do any of these look familiar?” In one mammoth vault, all she found was a single pair of red alligator 5-inch heels!
On the other hand, sometimes there is buried treasure. My dad was a hoarder. And he liked to get in his VW bus and go traveling. When we were cleaning up the bus to sell, we found 20s–hundreds of them!–folded and tucked away in every nook and cranny of that vehicle.
Bear in mind, though, that just because mom had a favorite emerald ring that you recall as a child, doesn’t mean it is still there, waiting for you. Over the years she may have given it away, sold it (and not told you), or just plain lost it.
A trust customer of mine laid her diamond ring on a hotel nightstand and forgot it. When she called the hotel later, of course it wasn’t there. She was so embarrassed that she never mentioned it to her kids, and left it for me to tell them after her demise.
7. Remember to breathe. The moments before a first sky-dive or other life-jolting experience can be the ones in which you feel most intensely alive. Just so, the hours and days surrounding a funeral can help you live more fully. Appreciate the rawness of emotion, the rough edges of living cheek to jowl with unremembered relatives, the unfamiliar food and the constant go-go-go of all the activity. Recognize that it won’t last forever, and you will be a better, stronger person for it. You will survive.
The best part is knowing that you don’t have to go through it all, when your time comes!