Dear Grief: Sorry, I’m Busy Now

Too busy
Your loved one has died and the business of the estate swamps you…

After a long life or an unfairly short one, death barges in.

Death never arrives alone:

  • The bills, sympathy cards, and junk mail pile up like a paper Everest.
  • There are endless follow-up phone calls and half the people don’t call back.
  • You’ve found most documents for the estate, except several are missing key pages with signatures and you’ve looked everywhere, including under the beds.
  • The woman at the funeral home was so kind, but the insurance agency had a confusing phone menu and you still haven’t talked to a real person.
  • The dimwit at the credit card company demanded an official death certificate to close the account even though their web page promised they’d take copies.

Your loved one has died and the business of the estate swamps you. For some, nearly everything is organized because your loved one was a good planner. Folders were labeled. Contact info for insurance and credit card companies were on a spreadsheet. But even with easy-to-find details, “closing the estate” is exhausting.

However, most folks aren’t that organized.

Whether a loved one was orderly or neglectful about their finances, your attention for months (or years) has been on the ever-changing demands of their declining health. Who cares about future obligations when a loved one has pain right now? You should’ve asked your Mom where she kept the tiny key to the jewelry box when she was alive, but there was always tomorrow—until there wasn’t. You should’ve asked your husband about the new insurance agent’s name because the old one had retired. But it was more important to reminisce than ask dumb questions about “business.”

And what if it was a sudden death? Literally everything will be a mess with non-stop stress.

In the days after death, you are VERY busy.

Sometimes, you’re the only one in the family handling . . . everything. Why can’t others assist? (And you shouldn’t have to ask them to help!) Tensions rise. Tempers flare.

Sometimes, if you’re the estate’s executor, you are responsible for everything. But family members are bossy and critical or never answer calls or emails. Tensions rise. Tempers flare.

When I phoned to offer grief support from hospice after a loved one’s death, many said they were glad to be busy. Busy means they don’t have to think about the death. Busy means they have a real project to tackle. Busy means they can start and finish a goal.

I’m staying busy! I’m doing fine!

For others, it’s not the busy-ness of the estate’s demands, but returning to their jobs. Last week, they buried a beloved. A few weeks prior to that, they were overwhelmed by the slow (or rapid) dying of their loved one. A month or a year before, they had just started on the relentless scheduling of medical appointments and/or emergency room trips. Now, the “awful” is over, and they can get back to . . .


Or you are retired, but there are household chores: weeding, mowing, repairing, and more! Everything has been neglected. You want to reclaim . . .


So much to do! You complain about the calendar-clogging obligations, but secretly you prefer it that way. Being busy represents sanity and salvation. Busy is a band-aid.

But what if busy means you don’t take time to grieve? Band-aids don’t help broken hearts.

Obviously, there are important estate tasks after the death and tasks at home or work that no one else but you can accomplish and tasks that provide a paycheck and put food on the table—but please don’t forget the tasks necessary for grieving and healing.

Let me suggest three:

Who have you avoided visiting since your loved one died? Maybe it’s someone you feel close to, but dread your emotions spiraling out of control when you see them. But “letting go” does help. If we contain our grief, our efforts at “control” may become like a wall around our life.

Why not “schedule” time for yourself? What if you accepted the invitation to a friend or family member’s home and let them pamper you for a few days? Why not schedule a long walk or a leisurely drive to a favorite spot? Why not meet that trusted friend for a three-hour lunch . . . to talk or not talk, to be with someone who accepts whatever you say or do? Many are good at scheduling time to accomplish goals. But we fail ourselves when we don’t literally schedule time to heal.

Please listen to what your tears (or absence of tears) are saying. We hate crying in public. Tears ruin make-up. Tears are hard to explain to co-workers. Tears flow at the worst times. Or: why won’t any tears flow? Wet or dry, our tears shouldn’t be ignored. Listen to what they may be revealing. Do regrets or guilt prompt tears? Are there memories you need to share, but fear others will judge or laugh at or ignore them?

I have ignored one bit of grief work for the death of my parents. In the final days of her life, Mom shared where she and Dad had their delayed honeymoon. Why had I never known about it? Married near the start of World War II, my parents were only able to sneak away for a brief time to a spot on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada called Lundy Canyon. I’ve been to many places in the Sierra, but never there! I’ve promised myself I want to glimpse hints of what my parents saw when they were young. This pandemic has become another speed bump in getting there. But I will go. It is part of my grief work.

What “work” do you need to do?

Yes, of course you are busy. But in grief, you also need time for you, and for your ongoing healing.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. Wow. Beautifully written and full of so much truth. This is definitely inspired me to take time and enjoy every moment with the ones I love.

  2. So familiar, Larry. So familiar.

    My friend was an eccentric, creative, strong woman who I only came to know the last 25 years of her life. She rescued me from a situation I’m only now beginning to understand. Yet, when she became ill, all that strength, creativity, melted into a childlike helplessness she never would have recognized. I promised her over and over she would NEVER go to a nursing home. It was the least I could do after all she had done for me. I kept my promise. That promise was a five year commitment which was often hilarious, horrible, sacred and wonderful. She had no family. She was an M.Div. who never was ordained. Denominations promise a lot but when she was one of the first to be granted that kind of degree from Vanderbilt. So she lived out her “ordination” in global ways. I looked up to her. I treasured our friendship. She was the anchor in my storm. When I realized she was changing I got scared. The strength came from somewhere and I took the reins.

    It might be difficult for persons on the outside of theological education to understand why some of us shun the very thought of a funeral. “Funerals are barbaric,” she used to say. So, when the time came and friends would ask, “When’s the funeral?” I’d just shrug and say, “later.” I was ordained. The funeral was left on my doorstep. I knew from the outset there would be no funeral and I pray there is none for me. A ritual? Oh yes! But NOT a funeral. So what did i do?

    I’m still doing it and like you Larry it’s going to places like you went to see what thrilled your parents. What I’m doing is taking her friends – one, or two at a time to places they shared when she was alive. Yep – that’s a pastor’s answer to a loved one. None of the churchy stuff we have come to expect at funerals. Nope. This was different. We did all our praying together when she was alive. Her friends, have to a person, said that’s the way they’d like to go out and each one of them is a Sunday going church member somewhere.

    I believe the pandemic will change things the way church works…if it will ever work again the same way it used to – I hope it changes. it is good for people to get away from looking at the backs of heads and get off their backsides and do something besides say “amen.” Yep – you column brings out all sorts of things and I think I may start my own blog because I’m finding I have a lot to say.

    Thank you, friend. You’ve been on this journey of mine since the get-go. Grieving has taken a different turn and I’m nearly as angry as I was at first. I’m still sorting and trying to find bank statements but I don’t get a bellyache anymore when a phone call comes asking for something I don’t have…things change. I’m downsizing myself and trying to remember all the things I couldn’t find and putting those things of mine in labeled envelopes so my kids will find them. The less I have – the less they will have to do but I hope one, or two of them go to Lake Sarah in St. Joseph, MN and sit on the bank where they can watch waterlilies breathe and hear the loons sing.

    • Touching and lovely words, Pat. I too wonder what changes will happen to churches (and other places) because of this pandemic. Glad you are taking time as you can with your friend’s friends. I may not be as “harsh” about funerals as you are, but also know the more important rituals and ways of remembering a loved one come when there is really a chance to talk, to cry, to be with others who are supportive in our grief. Take care!!

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