The Business of Grief

estate-saleI write these words now, influenced by last year’s memories. In the late summer of 2013, my mother had moved from a hospital to the skilled nursing facility (SNF) where she would die less than two weeks later. I posted thoughts on my Facebook page during that time. This was what I wrote several days after Mom entered the SNF:

Just before 6:30am, I call the nurse’s station…Mom continues non-responsive. Today, my older sister will meet with hospice and determine (again and as always) possible next steps. “What is best for Mom?” remains our guiding question while her strong vital signs and terrible weakness from surgery and cancer wind down an unknown path. I remain in Fresno, now engaged in the peculiar, unsettling chores of closing accounts. An email cancels her car insurance. A packed box is ready to return her Lifeline equipment. Sigh.

Mom was in Sacramento, I had briefly returned home to Fresno. The two California cities are roughly 160 miles apart, almost three hours of driving. With modern technology—from phones to texting to Skype—there is instant communication. However, with the emotions surrounding a loved one’s dying, a mile or a thousand miles feels like an impossible distance, a vast separation.

We knew Mom was dying, though she was yet alive.

I had begun the inevitable work of the living: taking care of Mom’s business. In her case, it turned out to be relatively simple. Dad had died the previous year. Because of my father’s years-long dementia, the advanced age of my parents, and their Great Depression-era focus about money, they had their “affairs” in order. In the awful time of Dad’s illness, Mom intentionally downsized her “things.” She was never a hoarder, and caring for an ill husband mobilized her instincts to shed the excess. Goodbye credit cards. Goodbye junk in the garage. She gave memorabilia to her kids and eagerly supplied church rummage sales with household “treasures.” Both Mom and Dad, until his dementia, were realistic about being “elderly.” They wrote a living will, discussed and finalized paperwork for their health care preferences (both were DNR), and generally didn’t put off anything onto the “tomorrow” that never comes. Even as successful middle-class citizens, humble about their accomplishments and proud of their family, Dad and Mom were forever Great Depression kids. They knew their income; they knew their expenses.

Compared to many children responsible for their parents’ estate, my job was easy. For example, I can recall my 2013 search for the box that contained Mom’s Lifeline equipment. In order to cancel her account, the Lifeline agreement required the prompt return of the apparatus and its support material. Because of Mom’s organizational skills, the shipping box and necessary forms were all found (and mailed) within a day.

As I began the process of contacting companies to cancel accounts or to change billing addresses from Mom’s to mine, I talked to an assortment of helpful and frustrating customer representatives. With one call, I’d spend hair-pulling time in the grim canyons of endless electronic menu choices. But in the next call, I’d encounter a kind man in Indiana (or India!) who quickly handled my needs and spontaneously expressed sympathy.

As easy as my task was . . . it wasn’t. Every phone contact felt like a kick in the gut. I was not just closing accounts, but ending the tiny, tidy practical world my parents had created during their lifetime of sacrifice, hard work, and humble success. In call after call, email after email, I had to repeat stories about Mom’s condition and eventual death, or how or where both of my parents had died. My efforts began before Mom last breath. They continued long after she had been cremated.

But you must take the time. Take a walk and breathe fresh air . . .

But you must take the time. Take a walk and breathe fresh air . . .

When making bereavement calls for hospice, especially in the first months after a death, I chat with people in the midst of the estate business, in the midst of the grinding busy-mess. Quite often, because of financial complexity or bickering families, their grief is ignored. Who has time to grieve when a to-do list is front loaded with 800 numbers to call, credit card passwords to unearth, medical bills in arcane code that keep arriving in the mail, and a million other trivial or maze-like tasks?

But you must take the time. Take a walk and breathe fresh air. Talk with a trusted co-worker. Share memories with an understanding sibling or cousin or best friend. Weep. Shout. Gripe. Rest. The essential “business” of grieving, of taking time for you, is no less important than the estate business.

(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.)

Sign image from here; walking image from here.

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