Losing Parents
May 28, 2008 5:59 PM   Subscribe

My parents are both well into their eighties now with health failing just a little bit more each year. How do I prepare myself for their eventual death?

Hopefully this isn't too morbid. I've been fortunate through my life to not have to deal much with death, but I know that time is approaching for my parents. Aside from the obvious sadness and bereavement, what can I expect in the short term following the passing of my parents? I'm looking for help with things like executing the will and estate, liquidating assets, accommodating creditors, etc. They have already appointed me as executor of their estate. For those of you who have lost parents, how did you deal with the immediate grief, but also what was left behind? Thanks so much for your assistance with this sad and hard to talk about subject.
posted by netbros to Human Relations (11 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
First off, spend time with them now. Talk to them. Listen to them.

I spent years preparing for my mom's death. It was a CONSTANT source of conversation for an entire decade. And then -poof- my dad went suddenly and my mom's still here. You simply can't *really* prepare yourself, it will happen as it's meant to and if you focus too much on it, the topic can take over your life and fill it with negativity. Don't obsess on your parents deaths. Focus on life. While you can. When they die, that'll be that. Nothing you can do. Focus on living and enjoying life while it's still around.

As for the stuff you'll have to deal with after the death, you haven't mentioned if you have siblings or other relatives that your parents might want to leave things to. All of that makes a big difference in how things are handled. We also don't know what kind of assets your parents have, if any. Etc. We can better tell you how that stuff is handled with more details.

The best advice on how to handle my dad's death was given to me in an AskMe. It was to spend the first week focusing on myself, on my grief, and on my dad. It was honestly some of the best advice I have ever gotten in my life. During that first week I refused to discuss his estate even when cornered, instead I spent that week watching Pink Panther movies by myself on his couch and absorbing what had happened. Talking to him, crying, laughing, getting it out. I slowly got stronger and stronger every day because I allowed myself to feel my pain and vulnerability and to miss him right away. I allowed myself to fully grieve and find ways to honor him. By forcing myself to be zen and peaceful and really letting myself feel the grief... that was honestly what made it a more positive growth experience. It's what has gotten me through.

Other people in my family have yet to begin their greiving and will probably struggle with his loss once it finally hits them. They're in denial. I found a lot of strength in my grief. I still will occasionally shed tears in conversation about him once in a while, and when I do I'm actually happy about it. It's good to know that I'll probably always miss my dad enough to cry a little. It shows people I loved him. He would like that.
posted by miss lynnster at 6:35 PM on May 28, 2008 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: Lynn thanks for the link to your previous AskMe thread. I had missed that one. Sorry also for your own personal loss. To answer the items you brought up: I have one brother - we are all a very close knit family. My parents are middle class, comfortable, with one home, retirement investments, pension income, and little if any debt. I live in the same town with them. I moved here when they started needing more assistance. My brother is cross country.
posted by netbros at 6:54 PM on May 28, 2008

Best answer: As far as estate planning, make sure that their wills are up to date, and that you know where they are. Also, since you are the executor, get your name added to all of their accounts... checking, savings, etc. This will be incredibly helpful if one or the other becomes ill (you can continue to pay their bills with their own money), and will save you an immense amount of paperwork with the probate court in the event of death.

Also, talk to them about living wills and end of life measures, and make sure you have appropriately notarized copies on hand to give to doctors and hospitals. It's much easier to talk about and deal with when they are relatively good health, and dealing with this now can prevent miserable situations when everyone is distraught in the future.
posted by kimdog at 7:18 PM on May 28, 2008

Best answer: Having lost my dad last week and just coming home from his memorial service not 15 minutes ago, I'll add some details as to the mechanics involved that aren't about grief or the estate.

1) If they have advanced medical directives (Do Not Resuscitate orders and the like), make sure they are in an accessible place. My dad was probably the first on the block to set up DNRs with his attorney years ago, but regardless of his preparation he also had the idea of keeping them in their safe deposit box. It just so happens that things went downhill for him very quickly and we did not get the DNR to the doctor before he had an accident and required CPR. He was already in ill health and thus wound up on life support requiring us to make excruciating decisions in the aftermath, for which he would have been extremely angry about. The preparation did no good and it turned out that every development after that involved some surprise or another Achilles heel.

2) Get them to make burial plans. Neptune Society (cremation + ashes at sea), ground burial, mausoleum, whatever. This can be taken care of such that there will only be a (relatively) small amount to pay once they do pass, which is much easier than having to run around and figure this stuff out while you already grieving or having to deal with an imminent demise. It's also cheaper both if they do it in advance and if they haven't already passed (the industry calls this "pre-need").

3) Mortuary stuff is pretty simple, but you'll need their Social Security cards and (optimally) access to their primary physician. It was about $2000 including the $1200 casket (second cheapest), and a fair chunk of this can be set up in advance. They were very good about dealing with the hospital and getting everything set up for the cemetery hand-off. Choices here involve open-casket preparations and the schedule for internment.

4) The memorial service was almost the easiest part (though it didn't seem so three days ago). You'll need to set things up with a pastor or other officiant, then figure out what order you want things to occur. We did a Presbyterian service which involved beginning and ending scripture stuff, a singer who sang a couple songs, and a section where anybody could speak. If you want to do this feel free to start writing things down now. It's not morbid (or at least is not bad because you're thinking of it), and it will let you have your part set up already instead of having to write in an emotionally confusing time. I also had not had much death in my family, so all of this was new to me. I didn't speak at his service and neither did my brother (though my niece did). A couple of old friends of my parents did the bulk of peer speaking and eulogy and it turned out great. Another aspect of the memorial service was that I had been going through the difficult process of watching and dealing with my father's death, but that the attendees were confronting it for the first time when they arrived. This involved a slight adjustment on my part where the service was the last part of a difficult stretch for me, but while my instinct led me to greet people like "Hey, how's it GOING?" with a smile on my face because I hadn't seen them in a long time, the people I was talking to were in full grief mode so I had to tone it down to match and empathize with them.

I'll second spending time with them NOW even though you're close knit. I have no idea how my grief pattern will play out, but I was glad I'd made an effort to spend real time with them as it became apparent that my dad's health was failing more than usual over the past year. Listen to your gut on this note, because it will probably be correct (as painful as it might be to admit to yourself).

Even after a few weeks of complicated turns leading up to death, the internment was the most difficult part. Depending on your family history and dynamics you may or may not have the option to attend. I'm glad I did, but I was bawling the whole time. My brother has not reacted emotionally publicly at all so far.
posted by rhizome at 7:28 PM on May 28, 2008 [12 favorites]

Get their stories on audio or video tape!!! Videos are great, but many older people find it easier to talk without a camera staring at them. Just put a recorder on the table or clip a mic on their lapels. How to bring it up? Maybe suggest sometime that you'd love to have some family history -- in their own voices. There is an excellent book called LEGACY that is basically a book of Q&A's already put together in a logical order. You can use something like that as a general guide and let them weave in their stories however they would like. I did this with my mother and now, after her death, I treasure that 2-hour tape of mom telling me all these stories, hearing her laugh, hearing her clear her throat the way I remember her doing all my life (sounds silly - but it's just so her!) -- and it's neat to have her telling stories about me as a child. My own children will cherish those stories as one of them never knew her. Maybe this is something you've already done, but I can't telll you how many people have told me, "I wish I'd done that before I lost my parents." So now, I suggest this whenever the time is right - and your question seemed like a perfect time to again offer this up for thought.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 7:39 PM on May 28, 2008 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Well, my family isn't as tight as yours so your situation will actually be much different. Hopefully your brother and you will be able to lean on eachother. That will be invaluable.

I'll tell you how it worked with my dad. My dad had a heart attack. By the time I got there, he'd already been taken away. He wanted to be cremated so that was scheduled. We went to the mortuary to talk about plans. One great thing was that my dad was vocal about the things he liked and didn't like. We only used the mortuary for the cremation and the death certificates (cost appx. $2400), and then I called around to plan his memorial (we splurged, it cost appx. $3000). He LOVED horse racing so I was able to book a skybox at the Del Mar racetrack. It was one of the best decisions ever, I'll never regret it. The memorial was great, it was catered, it was perfect. Because it was planned with such love and honoring HIS interests, there was just a great feel in the room. I bought a guest book (to give people an outlet to express grief) and we set up photos on a table. I burned hundreds of his favorite songs onto my ipod and had them piped in on shuffle. The memorial was not formal, and that's what was right about it... my father was not a formal guy. People stood up and spoke about him. It was nice. I think the biggest priority for me was honoring the person my father actually WAS. People really appreciate that kind of sincerity and it helps you grieve. It was very comfortable for everyone.

The obituary should appear at least a few days before the funeral if possible. But the amount of people who will see the obituary and then go "Oh wow! I need to go to this!" is minimal. So don't beat yourself up if you struggle to write it and don't get it finished immediately. BE EASY ON YOURSELF. Whatever you do will be just fine. Your parent won't mind.

Obituaries are freaking expensive. The one I wrote was not long compared to most (although it felt like it was so lengthy as I was writing it). It did not feature a photo. But it cost upwards of $500. That's apparently almost cheap from what I hear.

I called all of my father's creditors to cancel his accounts. Many of them asked for copies of the death certificate. You probably won't be able to get the death certificate for a week or so after your parent was declared dead. A xerox should be fine and they should be able to accept a fax too. One thing is that some creditors are much nicer when you're late with bills than when you die. They are afraid they aren't going to get paid so sometimes they immediately send it to a collector or probate department. You should be able to negotiate the bills to a lower amount and settle with them.

My father's pension didn't have benefits that extended beyond his passing, but he had a small life insurance policy. It was simple to do that paperwork and the money was direct deposited into my account a week later. It was a lifesaver for me.

If you are executor, you should see about how your parents bank accounts, etc. are set up. If your name is not on any of the accounts then you might not be able to access funds for 40 days after the date of death. It's a pain. I paid for a lot of things out of my own pocket because of that.

My father's stuff was in a trust which protected it from probate so I'm not sure about how you'll have to deal with your estate when it comes to that stuff. Currently there's a professional independent trustee handling it on behalf of my sister and I, so I've kind of walked away from all of the nitpicky things that need to be dealt with otherwise. Other people can probably fill in the blanks where I missed stuff.

I will say this... my dad barely filled out the paperwork on a lot of his will documents. He started setting up his estate and then never got around to completing it fully. Fortunately he signed the most important things. Still, try to get your parents to actually finish the procedures. Dot the Is, cross the Ts.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:45 PM on May 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Rhizome, how thoughtful of you to respond at this very tough time for you. Thanks simply aren't enough. Wishing you the best.
posted by netbros at 8:15 PM on May 28, 2008

Oh, also be sure you know where they keep their tax returns and keep in mind that there will have to be a tax return filed for them for the year they died even after death. Be sure to know where they keep pink slips to vehicles, deeds, lease agreements, etc. too.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:42 PM on May 28, 2008

Have you actually talked with them and asked them their wishes? I mention this because part of my job is doing the daily obituaries for the paper I work at. (And as pointed out upthread, they are freaking expensive.) They may want a full service. They may want just a family get together and no service. They might want money donated to charity instead of flowers. They may not even want an obit published. Each parent may want something different. It will make a very difficult time much, much easier if you learn ahead of time what they want.

Oh, and the other thing - the best way to prepare emotionally? There isn't. But you can make sure you know they're loved, and make sure they know that you will watch after those they care about. Knowing that their loved ones will be cared for will bring them a lot of peace.
posted by azpenguin at 12:22 AM on May 29, 2008

Excellent advice here; I'll just add one thing nobody has mentioned—talk to your brother about all this and make sure you're on the same page as far as possible about how the estate will be handled. Inheritance notoriously puts a strain on even close family relationships; even if you don't think it can happen to you, it can. (I speak from sad experience, as an executor.)

And my condolences to rhizome; I hope giving such a thorough and thoughtful answer was a help to you as well as the poster. I know how difficult the immediate aftermath is.
posted by languagehat at 7:21 AM on May 29, 2008

Gerard Sorme is a genius. Add me to the list of those who wishes they'd taken the time to get family stories on tape! I'm sure that's a priceless piece of history you have there.

I'll add to this, talk to them now. Ask questions that you even feel uncomfortable asking, because once your parents are gone there's no asking.

Have as many accounts as possible put in your name and set up any POA's or Guardianships that you feel are necessary.

As for your question of how you'll feel after they die, that's something only you can answer. Don't ignore or deny your feelings. Do whatever YOU need to do to come to peace with your relationship with them. Talk to them even though they're not right there in front of you and say everything you need to say. Lean on those closest to you and don't feel bad about it. If they're a true friend they'll expect this and want to help out.

Beyond this remember that life is for the living. Whereas your parents will always be a part of who you are remember that you still have a lot of living to do.
posted by SoftSummerBreeze at 9:12 AM on May 29, 2008

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