No matter how much you prepare, a death in the family is rough. My mum died in December – that’s the reason for the long gap between posts – and one of the ways I’ve coped is thinking about all the preparedness issues that have come up.
With an ageing population, and health services stretched tighter and tighter, more of us will be facing these issues. And personally, I think that life expectancy will fall, because the NHS resources that my family had just won’t be there – medicines, nurses, doctors, carers, porters, equipment, all sorts of things. That’s not “the end of the world” – that’s just about our tightening economic situation.
I live hundreds of miles away from where my mum lived, so I needed a Go Bag, not only for that final goodbye, but for nursing duties shared with my brother and sister over the previous weeks. Yes, it was ready, I could have walked out of the house five minutes after I got a phone call. But I had a library book to return that couldn’t be extended, I had three online bills to pay, I had to water the houseplants … ridiculous things. So I did the everyday things instead of starting what turned out to be the final six hour journey at 3pm. Wrong decision – I didn’t get to see her to say goodbye, though I know she was unconscious by then in any case. Go Bags are only part of the story.
Some medicines weren’t supplied to us in sufficient quantities, and some were oversupplied. A bottle of Over The Counter medicine that lasted 36 hours, and a bottle of morphine that lasted 10 days? Mad. To get more of the medicines that were needed, it helped to have a written record:
- what was prescribed?
- what quantity?
- who wrote the prescription?
The latter was unexpectedly important: it might have been from the last visit to a consultant, or a regular GP visit, or a regular visit from a nurse, or an emergency visit from the district nursing clinic. If you don’t know, everything can be delayed, and while the individuals were fantastic, the systems they were struggling with were … Dickensian, let’s say.
Afterwards, they can be returned to a pharmacist for safe disposal – or ordinary things like paracetemol can be kept, of course. If in doubt, though, take it to a pharmacist. Or give it to a charity that sends these things where they’re desperately needed.
Keep A Diary
Leads on from the above, really. You need to know who it was that came to the house two days ago, and how to get in touch with them again, and exactly what they said. And you won’t remember, when so much is going on. Who offered the use of a walker? Do those two medicines counteract one another? Who do we talk to about getting night sitters? Social Services need to get involved?
Every medical and personal care practitioner we spoke to understood that this unique time is unique in different ways for everyone, and every family, and every terminally-ill person, has different needs and will make different choices. My brother had two great catch-all questions at the end of each meeting: “Is there anything else you think we need to do? Is there anything else you think we should know?”. It helped a lot.
What really matters?
Life becomes very focussed at the end of terminal illness. The things that mattered to our family were pain relief and cleanliness. Both these things were easily sorted in this case, thank heavens, and “personal care” is a vastly underrated service. Yes, families could do it. But very few patients want their own adult children to perform these services, and that’s where personal carers step in, full of practicality and kindness.
You can’t arrange the timing of a death, of course, but we were “lucky” for a December death in that we were able to have the funeral before Christmas. Some families who suffered a bereavement only a few days after us had to wait until after the New Year, because of a backlog at the crematoria, of all things. If you think you might ever be in this situation, remember that you can only book a funeral once you’ve registered the death: thats absolutely the first thing to do, once signed off by a medical practitioner.
Other things still carry on happening
Agonising and surreal, but true. Between my mother’s death and her funeral, the members of the immediate family had a house sale, a house purchase, and an offer for another house accepted. It was weird. But those things still had to be paid attention to. It helps to have people with whom you can share the responsibility – community is crucial, especially at times like this! None of the sales and purchases were mine, so I was the one who dealt with the Order of Service, and also with getting together groups of photos to be used at the celebration after the commital. The others could focus, for a short time, on all the legal business that was necessary.
Tell Us Once
This is a government scheme, and gives you a few shortcuts so that you don’t have to phone quite as many government departments as you otherwise would. It’s not complete though, so make sure that you cover the exceptions. The Registrar should give you details. Details are included in the government link above.
Executors’ ID papers
My mum’s will was lodged with a solicitor, and named all three of us as Executors, so that any of us could do whatever needed to be done. The solicitor she chose should spend a considerable amount of time in purgatory. That’s as polite as I can be about that firm. They wanted photo ID and two proofs of residence from each executor, nine pieces of paper in all. Between recent house moves, changes in status, changes in utility companies and geographical distance in the case of me and my sister, it was a nightmare that delayed us for over a week.
The solicitors were initially very fuzzy about what they wanted, and refused to speak to us directly. At first, they didn’t even give us an exact list of what they wanted. They made assumptions about what services we wanted and didn’t want, and in general made many more demands on us than had been the case a few years ago when my brother in law died and we needed to obtain his will, in the same situation. I won’t easily forgive them the strain they caused us. It was horrendous.
As I was writing this, I found a solicitor who does exactly what I thought should be done, what’s common sense to me: they explain the process online, and have a series of forms to be downloaded, printed off and used as circumstances demand. I really wish we’d had a solicitor like this. The Law Society and Citizens Advice can also be helpful.
Texting And Letter Writing
Texting was incredibly valuable – it saved our throats from having to repeat the same information over and over again, and we had no web connection at my mother’s house, for various reasons. We wrote quite a few letters, too, by hand, which seemed very odd. During the previous month, we’d written to everybody we could think of that would want to know, so we had a ready made set of addresses and phone numbers to use. And perhaps you’ll still be able to talk to the terminally-ill person you’re caring for about what they would like to happen, and who they would like to attend.
Gifts on the day of the funeral
There were a few people we wanted to gift things to, and the celebration after the funeral seemed the best time: we’d been able to talk it through, and all the people we wanted were there. It worked really well, and created some lovely memories for the end of that day. We’d ordered extra copies of the Order of Service so that people who couldn’t manage to come could at least have that.
I’ve been my mum’s finance person for years, including doing her filing, so it wasn’t too bad. But it had been her decision to amalgamate various savings accounts, and that saved us a huge amount of hassle. The pensioner bond and the premium bonds needed separate notifications (thank you for nothing, gov.uk!) but there were only four other notifications that were needed.
We’re working on Probate at the moment; sometimes it’s not needed, but my mum’s estate is not one of those. Most companies were helpful, but some very big names, even with good staff in a Bereavement Unit, seemed appalling. The Halifax Bank, for instance, thought a helpful method of confirming the identity of Executors would be to set up a quiz with information about their credit file. I disagree! The unlucky executor was me, and I’d just changed energy supplier, and I had to guess two out of the three questions they asked me, for that reason. Utter nightmare. They also wouldn’t use my mother’s address in correspondence, they used my address instead, unlike every other organisation we’ve been in contact with.
So, this has been my life for the last few months. Part Two of my post about animals is still sitting in the wings, but that will have to wait until the next round of the probate work is completed. Life goes on. So does prepping.