A state of my heart – from a different view

My mother and father were married for 38 years. So when she passed, I did not have to assume the duties of estate executor. I did not have to review her will or submit for death certificates. My father did all of that. In some ways this was a great relief though I tried to help with as many things as I could. My hope was to ease my father’s pain in any way that I could. I asked for a few of mom’s things, grasping at anything that would keep her more alive to me. I wanted the jewelry she wore as it was the last thing to touch her. I took some of her clothes because they touched her skin; I took some of her shoes even though we don’t wear the same shoe size, but because they were hers. When I got home I placed the clothes in a box to “save” her smell.

My mother always taught us that home isn’t a house, it’s the family within it and the memories you make. She was an avid collector of a variety of things to include pill boxes, silver, figurines, and crystal. She was a hoarder of photographs, ordering many, but never sending them out to family and rarely displaying them. Until my brother scanned every.single.childhood.photograph. I only had one or two photographs of me or my family as a child. I remember countless times polishing and cleaning mom’s silver – even doing this mere hours after she passed. I recall searching for pill boxes that symbolized or meant something to her – a duckie pill box, a wedding cake pill box, a margarita pill box (that broke as she opened it or as I packed it – but I gave it to her anyway). She was afraid to move her beloved figurines for fear of breaking them. Once I broke a Christmas ornament and you might have thought I had killed a puppy her reaction was so great. She only brought out the “good china” and “good crystal” for special occasions so many of my memories of holidays have these “rare” items in them.

She had exquisite taste. She dressed impeccably and was the epitome of class. A year or so before she passed, we went through her closet to purge the clothing she could not wear anymore. Up until that point I had not realized what a clothing snob she was. Her closet was filled with designer shoes, clothes and bags. She had a story for almost every purchase and seeing the old relics reminded me of watching her dress for parties as a child. That was a particularly fun day for me and mom. I itemized, listed and bagged each item of clothing – which then sat in her foyer for I do not know how long. Mom was a firm believer that “possession is 9/10ths of the law.”

I was the beneficiary of many wonderful items of my mothers. As the only daughter I expected (and felt entitled) to these items. They were my mothers. And, frankly, if I had found an old tissue I may have kept that too. See, once someone is gone, there are no more memories with them to be made. There are no more hugs to be had or kisses exchanged. No more words. No more moments. And when you open that box of items that you delicately stored and “hoarded” as your own, you might be surprised when the smell is gone, just like mom.

After mom was gone I had assumed that going through mom’s things would be left to me. I envisioned delicately going through her things, folding them and packing them up. In my vision, I could see her smiling at me, just like she had when we went through her closet. I imagined gliding through the house and being given her things for my own house… items from her collection. The reality of this was quite different.

From my experiences I have learned:

1. Talk to your family.
2. Be your own advocate: If you want something make it known. Write it down. Voice your wants. And don’t stop yelling until you get them.
3. What might be endearing and precious to you, may seem indiginifant to someone else. Let them know why it is special to you.
4. If you suspect something amiss, it probably is.
5. Follow your gut.
6. People’s timelines for grief are varied and different. Don’t be surprised if you are still mourning three, four, five years later; and don’t be surprised if someone else is not.
7. Don’t wait to take care of things until the right moment (ie. Packing up mom’s things). That moment will never come. The pain will never lessen. The moment IS the moment.
8. Realize that if things you desperately and soulfully want aren’t received that no one can take your memories.


A State (of the Heart) Matters

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:

  1. 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.
  2. If your Mom has a will, you will need to find a probate attorney.
  3. If your mom does NOT have a will, you will need to find a probate attorney.
  4. Attorneys are expensive. Expect to pay around $2,000 retainer and an approximate of $150-200/hour.
  5. Probate is simply the matter of transferring the estate (home, personal property) to the executor.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

xoxo, Meme