Do you ever just have those days when you think, “Good god, what else is going to come flying down life’s corridor to hit me in the face today?” The last four weeks have sort of been like that.
It all started with my mother-in-law’s unexpected death in late September. Given my age, I suppose it is surprising just how few funerals I have been to in my life. And even though I have lost close family members (grandparents, an aunt, and another one or two related by marriage), death has not knocked on very many doors that are within my reach, either friends or family. Maybe it’s because I’m lucky, maybe it’s because I’ve got long-lived genes in the family; in part it’s because I don’t have a particularly large family or a large network of friends. So this is the first time that I have been intimately involved with the process of a beneficiary taking on the responsibility of assuming a loved one’s estate after death.
What a wake up call this has been.
I had never even heard the word “probate” before this month. Perhaps you are wondering if I have spent my entire life living under a rock. In essence, yes, I have. Another story for another day. Right now, Hubby and I are now stumbling through the process of assuming the role of Personal Representative in his mother’s estate. To help us through the process, we have hired a lawyer. It’s the best thing we could have done, in my mind, even though it’s going to cost us a couple grand. But that is merely a drop in the bucket compared to other expenses.
I had no idea how expensive it is to die.
Lord, death is expensive. There is the cost of the funeral, which I’m pretty sure was dirt cheap for us because we didn’t have a viewing or hold a funeral gathering at the funeral home, just a grave-side service at the cemetary–as cremation was opposed by some in the family. So add in a casket, the cost of purchasing a burial plot and paying for the excavation and, in our case, a concrete lining for the grave. Then there is the headstone. It can cost nearly $10k to stick someone in the ground for a “proper” burial. Perhaps this seems crass of me, but as a ecologist, the whole thing seems ridiculous. I would prefer to be left to rot and fertilize a tree or something like that, but that is not how our society handles these things. Instead, we dress our dead in their finest linens, in a lovely lined casket with ornate detail both inside and out. It feels exploitative to me, like the family is obligated to make their loved one “comfortable” in the afterlife by spending a whole bunch of money. Interestingly, I was just talking to someone recently who sells burial plots and other “deathly” services for the church in town. She said she is expected to sell $35,000 worth of plots and services per month! This was before I knew how much a single funeral can cost, but she told me it felt predatory. She felt pressure to push extra costs on a grieving family just so she could make a commission and pad the pockets of the church. At least that was her perception. She felt guilty, like she was taking advantage of people during a vulnerable time and was looking for another job. I hope she finds one that makes her happy. Feeling guilty about your job is no way to make a living.
Hubby and I have made several trips to his mother’s house this month, which is a 5 1/2 hour drive away. Before we can sell anything, Hubby has to be appointed PR. That will take a couple of weeks once the paperwork begins to roll. In the meantime, we have begun cleaning out the house, locating paperwork for life insurance, bank accounts, loans, clients (she had a bridal shop and did alterations), etc. If I may, allow me to offer this one piece of advice: get rid of all your shit before you die so your children don’t have to deal with it. We have found some great family mementos–family photos and such, but we have also found plenty of things that could have been thrown out 40 years ago, like bank statements, checkbooks, and bills. I understand no one really knows when they are going to die, and by default living in this country means you will have a certain amount of “stuff” to your name, especially if you own a home, or a business, or both. Going through this process, though, has made Hubby and me want to go through our house and downsize. Get rid of things we don’t use, don’t need, don’t want–for our own sake and lightening of the load, so to speak, but also just so when we kick the bucket (hopefully not anytime soon, but one never knows) our loved ones who inherit our stuff will not inherit a big ol’ mess.
Needless to say, dealing with the death of a loved one is exhausting on many fronts. There is the period of grieving, which is emotionally exhausting, but then there is the other shit to deal with–calling life insurance companies, banks, cell phone companies, utility companies, credit card companies, clients and customers, vendors, the list is crazy huge. And while waiting for the probate process to move forward, you have to continue to pay the mortgage, utilities, and a few other bills to make sure the bank doesn’t repossess the house or the pipes don’t freeze while the house sits and awaits a buyer or renter. That is also emotionally exhausting (not to mention bank account exhausting) but also physically exhausting if you are having to drive back and forth to the loved one’s home every weekend for weeks or months. We are going to put nearly 3,000 miles on our truck this month just from driving back and forth to deal with the estate. And then what about your job? No one feels like going back to work right after the death of a family member, but for some, there is no other option. In Hubby’s case, he got a week of sick leave to use towards his time to travel for the funeral, but for those who work jobs in the service industry, work minimum wage jobs, or just have asshole bosses, that’s not an option. When is there even time to grieve? Much less deal with all the shit?
I know we aren’t the first people to go through this. I’ve talked with a couple of people this week who are going through the same thing right now, though in different stages of the process. Everyone agrees it’s a stress, it’s exhausting, and it’s a pain in the ass. But you get through it. It’s nice to have the support of friends, strangers, and neighbors, even if it’s just to hear, “Yep, I know exactly what you are going through. I’ve been there. Good luck, you’ll get through this eventually.” Though (thankfully!) this is not our case, I’ve heard horror stories of families ripped apart by the death of a loved one: siblings fighting over inheritance, marriages maimed by the stress of dealing with everything–it’s amazing anyone comes out alive on the other end of death.
Death is not for the weak, that’s for damn sure.