Last March, my dad, who had been fighting stage IV pancreatic cancer, passed away. I was with him the last twelve hours of his life and saw him pass peacefully in the middle of the night. (Read my earlier post about pancreatic cancer here.) Even though his death was expected (as his chemo wasn’t working and his body was slowly deteriorating), but I realized that people are never really prepared to see someone they love die and the see life leave the body.
So even though I am grieving the loss of my dad, I’m also processing and mentally dealing with what I experienced in those last hours.
As someone who has just recently gone through losing a parent, I wanted to help my readers with real life advice when dealing with loss. As my dad was my last parent alive, I also bear the title of executor of his will. Twelve years ago when my mother died, my pain was more about grief and loss – not about the large amount of work that would be dumped into my lap.
When you come up for air after the initial grief period and browse the internet or talk to others, you can find all sorts of tips and suggestions about the legal work and financial matters that need to be taken care of. I, however, wanted to focus on real world tips to help you maintain your sanity while dealing with both the loss and the mountain of work ahead (if you are the executor). The following is my list of things to consider after losing a parent:
In the days and weeks after a loss, your world turns upside down, and rightfully so. You take time off from work, family flies in, and arrangements are made. Everything in your current life gets moved aside as you deal with the matters at hand. Be sure that through this initial period of loss, you take time to grieve. Talk about the deceased, go through old photos, and share stories with family. You and your loved ones will need time to process the death, especially if it was sudden, as well as how it has affected you. Set aside at least the first few days to do nothing BUT grieve.
If you try to get back to your usual life and routine before you are ready, you will be wasting your time trying. If you head back to work, school, or your daily routine too soon, you will find yourself disengaged, unmotivated, distracted, and unsocial. If you lose a parent or a member of your family, give yourself at least one week, but expect to need two weeks. Obviously, more time may be needed if it’s immediate family, a child, or an unexpected death. Whenever life tips back into place, take it slow and do what you can. It may not be your best, but with each day, things will be a tiny bit easier and over time, you will become more productive.
Whether it’s dealing with grief or dealing with estate matters, don’t expect it to be over with quickly. I can’t tell you how many times I told myself “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” I felt so bombarded with tasks and decisions at times, that I would start to panic. I’d easily get overwhelmed and that worsened when I thought of everything left undone at my own home since I was so busy with the estate work. Focus on priorities, things that HAVE to be done. Maybe pick one piece of estate business to tackle each week. The sting of losing a parent is strong. Keep telling yourself that your house will still be there to clean when this is all over.
Ask around, talk to family or friends, or simply browse the internet for a reputable estate attorney in your area. Yes, these attorneys aren’t cheap, but they can save you from hours of work, worry, and headaches. So many tasks like closing financial accounts and selling a home are dependent on properly filing the death with the county of residence and obtaining power as executor. I would especially get an attorney if you have complicated matters or want to avoid paying inheritance taxes. I hadn’t intended on obtaining an estate attorney until I had to (due to financial matters), and it relieved a great burden from my shoulders. If you can’t afford an attorney or don’t think you need one, I recommend the book The Executor’s Guide: Settling a Loved One’s Estate or Trust (link to Amazon.com). This book proved extremely helpful in the earlier days of handling matters.
After losing a parent, keep in mind that all this work may take a year or longer to completely finish. Rather than feel overwhelmed, get a calendar, a piece of paper, and a pen and jot down your complete list of things to do and when you’d like to have it done. My husband and I created a spreadsheet in Google Docs so other family members could access it and see what was finished and what still needed to be done. Prioritizing your list of things to do also takes away the pressure from the mounting list of tasks and allows you to focus on the most important. And the best part about that is crossing something off your To-Do list!
No family is free from conflict. However, this is not the time for petty arguments from past disagreements. Carrying out a will and dissolving an estate requires clear and direct communication with your involved family. Whether it’s brothers and sisters, step parents or parents, or any other family member or named friend, all necessary parties should be involved. If you have to split inheritance money, split assets, or divvy up household goods of the deceased, now is not the time to be passive, unclear, angry, or bitter. After losing a parent, help create a cordial environment for open and honest discussion and make sure that every necessary person is informed and involved.
It felt very strange to be emptying my dad’s closet the day he died. I hadn’t planned on doing that, but after much thought, that’s where I ended up. My head got flooded thinking about all of the tasks that lay ahead, and anxiety hit me like a ton of bricks.
It’s important to make sure that you are ready to start the task of emptying the house. Do you have the time? Sometimes when people are in the middle of a huge project, they rush through it, just to get it done. If you rush, you may throw out or donate items that you may want to keep. Try not to rush, but rather schedule a plan to work on the home on certain days and try to stick to it. If you are doing it alone, it will take time. Make sure you have plenty of boxes, bags, paper or bubble wrap, tape, and markers. Then create piles for “trash”, “to donate”, and “items to keep” and pack these items up. If you’re unsure about items, create another box labeled “unsure.” Come back to these items every week and see if you have made any decisions yet. It’s better to hold onto something potentially sentimental for longer than necessary, than to donate or throw it away and have it be gone for good.
Whether it’s help with the estate, help from a therapist/doctor, or help with your own matters, don’t feel bad asking for help. In my experience, most people who express their sympathies almost always wants to help in some way. After all, isn’t that why people bring food to those who are grieving? Before turning them away with the usual, “No, I’m good, thanks,” try answering with, “Thank you for offering. I will certainly let you know if there is something I need help with.”
In the beginning, when family and friends are around, you may not need the help. It’s afterwards, when everyone else heads home and you’re left with the grief and paperwork, that you realize you need help. You may also have to pay for help like house cleaning, take-out food, or landscape services. If possible, don’t hesitate to spend the extra money if it helps you gain more time and maintains your sanity.
Amidst all of the new tasks added to your “To-Do” list, make sure you find the time to do the things you need to do and like to do. Be sure to eat and sleep at regular intervals. So often people lose their appetite while grieving and find it hard to sleep. Nourish your body and your mind in order to ensure keeping your head above water. Also, whether it’s exercise, reading, gardening, socializing, or some other activity that brings you enjoyment, make sure to schedule that into your day or week. It can feel extremely overwhelming to be saddled with grief and copious lists to do. Remember your productivity will likely increase if you take a break and do something enjoyable. Be sure to care for not only those grieving around you, but yourself as well.
The past few months have been extremely difficult for me emotionally and mentally. I hope that by opening up and sharing with you what I’ve learned, I can help even just one person learn to cope with their grief and the tasks that may lay ahead for him/her. Losing a parent is hard. Losing your last parent is even harder. Take a deep breath and just tell yourself, one step… at a time. You will get through this. It will just take time.
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