In today's society, we tend to ignore death. We avoid discussing it, thinking about it, and planning for it. While we all know that death is inevitable, we are unwilling to think it will ever happen to us.
"Death can be terrifying." Dr. Todd Kashdan opened his article, "Confronting Death with an Open, Mindful Attitude", with those four painfully-honest words. He goes on to explain why death is such a scary thing for most of us. "Recognizing that death is inescapable and unpredictable makes us incredibly vulnerable. This disrupts our instinct to remain a living, breathing organism."
Our fear of dying has kept us alive (as individuals and communities) for centuries. It's natural. Yet, the fear of dying does not serve our personal need for safety and if we are to live our lives, we need to release the fear altogether. Dr. Kashdan argues that a mindful approach to living may be what's needed.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness has been defined as, "The state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience."
Awakening to the inevitability of your own death is liberating. You are no longer forced to manage the fear; you are able to include death into your life experience.
Preparing for Your Death
Death is a natural part of life. When you live with intention, which involves looking toward death and preparing for it, you crush its power to keep you from living fully. The following task list will, when done mindfully, help you to not only confront your own death but to take control of it. While you'll never actually know how your life will end until the time of your death, your preparations will help you become comfortable with it.
- Write a will, notarize it, and provide a copy to your executor as well as any other individuals who are important in the settlement of your estate.
- Designate a Power of Attorney and Living Will, two essential documents if you are ever unable to care for your financial, medical, or legal needs due to an accident or illness.
- Make a detailed plan of your funeral or memorial service, which will help your survivors acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments.
- Organize all financial papers including insurance policies, bills, mortgage papers, vehicle titles, and loan documents. It may be useful to consider adding a trusted family member to your bank accounts.
- Secure your digital life for your survivors. Make sure to list all account passwords and usernames and let your survivors know how you would like your digital real estate (email and social media accounts) handled after your death.
If you don't work to really get in touch with the reality of your death, you will never be fully satisfied with your life. When endlessly trying to become victorious over death, you stop living fully.
A Death has Occurred
If you were present during the final moments in a loved one’s life, then you’ve been fortunate. We believe that while nothing prepares you for being present at the death of a loved one, bearing witness to the death of a loved one can bring new insights into your own capacity for selfless love and caring, help you to renew or intensify bonds with other family members, find a new respect for siblings, or help in the healing of old emotional wounds. It is a priceless gift – but it’s one you may not truly value until much later.
Are You the Responsible Family Member?
We’ve seen it happen time and again. The person making the initial call to our funeral home turns out not to be the one with the legal responsibilities of making decisions related to the care of a loved one.
While they may feel that they should be the one to make these choices, the law doesn’t recognize them as such – and so their voice can become effectively silenced.
If the deceased has not expressed their wishes through a written document such as a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, or a Last Will and Testament, where the deceased has designated an agent to fulfill their wishes; then the chain of command, formally called the “order of precedence”, is commonly as follows
- Legal Spouse/Partner
- Surviving Adult Child/Children
- Surviving Parent
- Surviving Adult Sibling
- Parent of Minor Child
The person designated as the responsible party, whoever they may be, needs to be present to make decisions, and sign documents. If you are unclear as to who is the responsible person in planning a funeral for your loved one, call us.
The Critical Importance of Designating a Representative
If your loved one has yet to specify who they wish to be in control of their funeral service planning, and they are clear-headed enough to do so, now is the perfect time to take care of that task.
This is especially important if they think their relatives will not respect their funeral plans, or if they are on bad terms with them; do not know where they are, or do not have any living relatives.
And, you might mention that appointing a specific person to arrange their funeral who is not a family member, but is deeply trusted, is a good way to ensure that their final wishes are carried out.
They can designate their choice by completing an Advance Health Care Directive, or the easy-to-read 5 Wishes guide from Aging with Dignity. Should you have questions about doing so, call us, or speak with your family attorney.
So, Who Do You Call First?
Whether you were sitting right next to the bed, or was unfortunate to get a call at 2 a.m. with news of a death of someone you loved, chances are your first feelings were of “being numb” and confused. But, if you're responsible for making the funeral arrangements or executing the will, you really can’t give into the shock or grief - you’ve got to move forward, and take care of things.
When someone dies, what you do first depends on the circumstances of the death. When the death occurs in a hospital or similar care facility, the staff will usually take care of some arrangements, such as contacting the funeral home you choose, and if necessary, arranging an autopsy.
However, you – or a designated family member or friend – will need to notify others. We’ve found it will make it easier on you if just a few phone calls are made to other relatives or friends, where you ask each of them to make a phone call or two to specific people. In that way, the burden of spreading the news isn't all on you.
And if you are facing this situation alone, then ask a friend or neighbor to keep you company while you make these calls. In that way, you’ll be better able to cope with the first hours after the death.
One of the first calls which should be made is to a licensed Funeral Director. Naturally, we'd like you to call us. But whether you choose to trust one of our funeral professionals to care for your loved one, or select a different funeral home, you should know that the Funeral Director will help you:
- Transport the body
- Obtain a death certificate
- Select a casket, urn and/or grave marker
- Arrange the funeral, memorial and/or burial service
- Prepare and publish the obituary
- Help notify the deceased's employer, attorney, insurance company and banks
- Offer grief support
- Direct you to other resources
Don’t Forget to Call the Employer
Was your loved one employed? Then, you'll need to call his or her employer immediately, to let them know of the passing, and the resulting change in their staffing arrangements.
At some later point (most likely when the funeral is over), you should ask about the deceased's benefits and any pay, which is owed to them, including vacation or sick time.
Also ask if you or other dependents are still eligible for benefit coverage through the company. And, you might ask whether there is a life insurance policy through the employer, who the beneficiary is, and how to file a claim.
Call the Life Insurance Company
If your loved one had a life insurance policy, locate the related paperwork. Call the agent or the company and ask how to file a claim. Usually the beneficiary (or the beneficiary's guardian, if a minor) must complete the claim forms and related paperwork.
You'll need to submit a certified copy of the death certificate and a claimant's statement to establish proof of claim. Remember to ask about payment options. You may have a choice between receiving a lump sum, and the having the insurance company place the money in an interest-bearing account from which you can write checks.
For more information on what's involved with funeral planning click here or contact us.
How to Tell Family Members
When the death is unexpected, the news will surely have been a shock to you – so you need to expect that reaction in those you tell. Even when the death is expected, as in a long illness, or when a loved one is in hospice care, the news may be difficult to deliver.
Before you go any further, the overriding question to ask, no matter the situation, is this one:
What Do You Want this Experience to be Like for Your Family?
Think about it. This will be a time in their life they will always remember. Just how do you want them to look back on it?
We’re confident you’d say you want them to remember it as a time of loving compassion; where the news of their loved one’s death was delivered with kindness and understanding. And that takes forethought. One aspect of thinking ahead includes avoiding the Internet channels of communication during the first hours after a loved one dies.
You want to be very careful that this information is not broadcasted through Facebook or Twitter (or any other social media site), or via Instant Messaging, before you’ve had the opportunity to connect with family members personally.
Stop, Think…and then Speak
You know your family members, and chances are you can predict how each one of them needs to be cared for during this difficult time. Our best advice is that you walk into this situation with your “eyes wide open”, and set the stage accordingly.
Should you call them in the middle of the night, or while they are at work, or school? Only you know the answer. But, when you tell them is an important consideration, and your family member deserves your clearest thinking on the matter of when you tell them the news.
Then, you need to think about how you will break the news. It’s preferable to deliver such news in person, but if that’s not possible, a phone call will have to do. In either case, we have some valuable suggestions:
- Protect them by asking them to sit down. After all, such news can often make someone’s knees buckle, and send them crashing to the floor.
- Choose your words carefully. You know the right words for the person you’re speaking to hear. If using a phrase like “passed on”, “passed away”, or “gone to a better place” makes sense, then use it. If you think they would they would rather hear their loved one has died, then that word is appropriate.
- Give them as many of the details involved in the death as you feel they need to hear right now.
- When you’re done, ask them if there’s anything they would like to know, and if there is, answer their questions as best as you can.
- Let them know they can continue to ask questions during the days ahead, and that they can openly express any emotions they are feeling now – and in the future – such as fear, guilt, sadness, depression, or anger.
After the call is made, or the news shared in person, keep the lines of communication open. And in the days to come, help your family member (to the best of your ability, considering your own grief) work through these emotions by encouraging them and reassuring them. Naturally, family members should support one another; so don’t neglect to turn to them for support as well.
Death, no matter the circumstance, is hard for us to handle. Keep in mind that the best thing that you can do for anyone when informing them of a death is to deliver the news thoughtfully. Let them know that you are there for them and that you love them. That too is an essential truth they need to know.
Notifying Creditors and Government Agencies
There are so many social connections you will need to notify of the death of a loved one. Just think of it: credit card companies, banks, investment and insurance companies, health care providers…the list can feel endless. What should be your top priority?
That’s simple. While the order of notifications you make will depend on your personal situation, it's essential that you stick to the following notification process, and keeping good records of all notifications you make. That should be your #1 priority.
A 4-Step Notification Process
- Initially make the contact by telephone.
- Follow-up with written verification.
- Mail all written verifications via registered mail, with signature confirmation required.
- Retain copies of all notices that you send, with the related postal tracking/signature information attached.
For many of the government agencies and financial entities, you will need a certified copy of the death certificate, your loved one’s social security number, and, if you are the executor of the estate, a copy of the appointment form from the probate court.
All creditors should be notified promptly following a death. If there is to be a delay in meeting debts or installment payments, you may be able to file for extensions. Many creditors are sympathetic to these situations and are willing to grant your requests. If credit insurance or mortgage insurance policies were in force, purchases made on credit (vehicles, furniture, etc.) or the home mortgage may be paid off by the insurance. Ask your lending institution.
Also notify the major credit reporting agencies, including Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Instruct them to list all accounts as: “Closed. Account Holder is Deceased.” You may also request a credit report to obtain a list of all creditors and to review recent credit activities.
Social Security and other government agencies should be contacted. These agencies could also include the:
- Veteran’s Administration, if your loved one served in the military.
- Defense Finance and Accounting Service, if the deceased was a military service retiree receiving benefits.
- Office of Personnel Management, if they were a retired or former federal civil service employee.
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, if your loved one was not a U.S. citizen.
- Department of Motor Vehicles, if decedent had a driver’s license or state I.D. card.
Clubs, associations, and social groups need to know. Did your loved one belong to any professional associations or unions? Even just your local video rental store should know, as should the public library. Here’s a check list for you:
- Professional associations and unions
- Health clubs and athletic clubs
- Automobile clubs
- Video rental stores
- Public library
- College Alumni clubs
- Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Veterans’ organizations and clubs
All online accounts should be closed. While there are companies, such as Entrustet, Legacy Locker, and DataInherit, whose sole purpose is to help you keep track of all your digital “assets”, including your passwords and other log-in details, chances are your loved one didn’t subscribe to any of their services. However, if they did, you’re one step ahead of the game.
But if not, you might be faced with ferreting out your loved one’s many online accounts – and it could take some time. Here’s a brief overview of those digital realms you should monitor, and eventually close:
- Email accounts
- You Tube
- Blogging accounts
- Online banking or investment portals
- "What is Mindfulness?", Psychology Today, 2014
- Kashdan, Todd, Ph.D., "Confronting Death with an Open, Mindful Attitude", Psychology Today, 2011
- Klosowski, Thorin , "One Day You're Going to Die. Here's How to Prepare for It", 2013