When your mom dies, one of the things that is most difficult to deal with is What’s Left Behind.
No one tells you this.
When I took my mom off life support, the practical details of death became the matter at hand.
Immediately I was asked, “Do you have a funeral home?”
A funeral home? How does one find a funeral home? The phonebook? Google? A friend? Sylvia Browne, that crazy psychic chick?
My answer: “Um.”
Luckily, I had an extremely nice nurse who told me that I could wait to make that decision. I didn’t have to decide right that minute.
What next? What next? What to do?
I called Bu to tell her about Mom and to ask, “Now what?”
She responded in a way that made sense: “I know it doesn’t seem this way right now, but these details work themselves out. I promise.”
She was right. They did.
So, I’ve decided to offer up a bit of wisdom about this process–hoping that it may bring some comfort to someone else.
Finding a Funeral Home
If your mom (or loved one) has not specified her wishes, try finding a funeral home that is convenient for you. Whether it’s close to where you live, your church, or a family gathering, find some place that works for you. A couple of things to note: your funeral director is like your concierge–his or her job is to make this difficult process as painless for you as possible. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t go there. (Before finding a place for Mom, I had a bad experience with a funeral home that had a Lurch look-alike.)
Financing the Funeral
Not everyone has their “affairs” planned in advance. Perhaps that concept belongs to a different time. If your mom was someone who did not, don’t despair. Most funeral homes will work with you regarding cost and payment. If there is life insurance involved, be patient. It may take a couple of weeks to obtain those funds, and most funeral homes will wait to be paid until you receive that check.
When I received a check from my Mom’s life insurance, I was extremely upset. I thought it belittled my mom to think of her life in a dollar amount. For quite some time, I felt…well, not great. Now, I’m grateful for her gift, for she lessened the financial burden on me, which is exactly what she would have wanted.
Embracing the Love
I am an only child of divorced parents, and my Mom was my world. We talked everyday–either on the phone or via email/Facebook. Planning my mom’s funeral was an extremely overwhelming and surreal experience. I was (and am!) lucky to have the support and love of my Beloved, who helped me figure out where to go and what to do. Without him, I don’t know how I would have made it. I was also lucky to have the support of my BFF, Bu, who came in and acted as the social director and “go-to” person for funeral services.
The most family help I received was not from the family I expected, but my dad’s side of the family. My, aunts, uncle, and cousins showed up to the house, rolled up their sleeves, and got to work. Not only was they were extremely helpful (for which I will always be grateful), but it was a nice way to visit with my family despite the circumstances.
In short: embrace the love.
Planning the Service: Cremation vs. Burial and Picking a Casket
If you’ve found a funeral home and funeral director with whom you are comfortable, it is now time to begin funeral planning. How do you know when to have the service? For me, I had Mom’s funeral one week after she died to accommodate out-of-town guests (and to find a funeral home), but some people choose to hold services right away. That is between you and the funeral director and what you decide.
Once you’ve picked a date, your funeral director will walk you through every step of the process–from finding a minister (if you don’t have one) to placing an obituary in the paper.
It is best to bring someone with you–a spouse, a parent, a friend…this is not something you want to do alone. One, it is emotionally difficult, and two, at least in my case, I was terribly forgetful and kept (as I refer to it) “dropping thoughts.”
Cremation vs. Burial
Like me, you may find yourself in the situation of having to decide whether you prefer burial or cremation. There is no right or wrong decision here–just what works for you–and is ultimately least painful for you in the long run. I opted to cremate my mom because I didn’t want to have her in the ground at a remote place. Some people also choose cremation over burial because it is usually less expensive than a burial.
Picking a Casket
Picking a casket had to be the most surreal experience of my life. I mean, who picks out caskets? (Apparently, I do.) So be prepared. Out of everything, this process was the most upsetting. Even more upsetting in some ways than having to extubate my mom. I think laws very state-by-state, but here in Minnesota, there are laws regarding caskets used for cremation versus burial.
When I had my initial fuineral home meeting with Lurch, he showed me the cremation caskets and then pointed out the cardboard box as another alternative. That was a shock and extremely upsetting to me. So, shocking in fact, that I had to leave the premises right then and there. If you know that this is not the choice for you, have the person with you at the funeral home quietly mention that this is not an option for you, and you don’t wish to see it.
Handling Estate Matters
This process is daunting and overwhelming in the best of circumstances. If you find yourself acting as an executor of your Mom’s estate, be prepared for what can be an arduous task. Settling a loved one’s estate is much like managing a really crappy project. Here are some pointers to help guide you through the process:
- Obtain the death certificates from the funeral home. You can expect them to arrive anywhere from two-to-four weeks after they’ve been filed. You will need these for everything from claiming life insurance to canceling a cell phone account. You will order these while planning the funeral, and 12-15 of them should be sufficient.
- If your Mom has a will, you will need to find a probate attorney.
- If your mom does NOT have a will, you will need to find a probate attorney.
- Attorneys are expensive. Expect to pay around $2,000 retainer and an approximate of $150-200/hour.
- Probate is simply the matter of transferring the estate (home, personal property) to the executor.
- A will is the document that determines who gets what (i.e., Aunt Gertrude’s ugly vase from 1933, the car, or the cash). Whether or not you have a will, you will still need to go through this process.
- Your attorney will give you a list of documents that you will need to obtain (mortgage statements, bank statements, etc.), which can be a super pain if your loved one’s death was sudden, and you find yourself having to go through personal papers/emails, etc.
- You CAN file taxes on behalf of your mom. In spite of death, the IRS needs its pound of flesh.
Packing up and Going Forward
For me, objects that represented the 60 years of my mother’s life were simply never just stuff. They were memories in a tangible form.
The saddest thing for me is that I have no one to recall those happy times with.
Going through your mother’s things is an incredibly painful and personal process. Right after my mom died, I received immediate suggestions of what to do: I could donate her clothing to a women’s shelter and canned goods to the food bank. I could have an estate sale. And although, these suggestions were made with the intent to help, I became defensive because it was simply too soon. I wanted my mother’s things to stay as she had them. The bottle of aspirin on the end table. Her recipe cards on the coffee table.
Unfortunately, those things could not stay there indefinitely. So when you’re ready:
Enlist help. If it’s a spouse, family member, or friend, ask someone to help you go through your mom’s things.
Hire someone. If the idea of going through and packing up belongings is too much, you can always pay someone. Professional organizers often include services like packing and helping to plan an estate sale.
Go away. If you’re planning on having an estate sale, let the professionals handle the staging, organizing, and the finances of the sale. They do not have the emotional attachment to the items being sold, and this way you won’t have to watch a bunch of strangers assessing and appraising your mom’s belongings. Find an elsewhere to be.
Just know that whatever you, you honor your mom.
Hope some of these suggestions help.