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Navigating the logistics of loss

It starts before you even begin to accept what has happened. Almost immediately, as you try to wrap your brain around the loss, the logistics come roaring to the forefront. We don’t talk much about the tasks and responsibilities that accompany death. We handle them privately, with only the innermost circle of those affected, perhaps because these logistics feature a supremely uncomfortable mix of personal topics – death, family relationships, and money.

Maybe we would benefit if we talked about these things a little more.

Not an actual pile of death-related bills, but a reasonably accurate portrayal.

There are bills. Maybe from a coroner, a funeral home, a florist, a car service. Perhaps from a hospital, an ambulance company, a house of worship, various doctors. Unanticipated costs may appear. You may need to travel – or transport remains home. Obituaries can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. When you want to run an obituary in several different newspapers – as when, in your grief and love for a person, you need people in all the cities where he lived to know what has happened (can you tell I have personal experience with this?) – you can find yourself deep in a hole you had no idea you were digging.

Unimaginable decisions must first be imagined, and then made. Will you bury or cremate the body – and, if no one knows the wishes of the deceased, who will choose what to do? Where and how will ceremonies be conducted, if any? If anyone will view the body, what will you choose for it to wear? Then there are the relentless mundane decisions. What will the houseful of friends and family eat for breakfast? For lunch? For dinner? What will children do and where will they go? What will everyone wear to the service? Who is going to do the laundry? What do people need from the store?

There are heartbreaking tasks. Retrieving personal items from a hospital room, a hospice, a wrecked automobile. Parsing a suicide note, or looking in vain for one. Writing an obituary. Thinking of people who need to be told and how to reach them, and then telling them. Securing a death certificate, and giving it to everyone who requires it as proof of the thing you most wish were not true. Meeting with people to discuss music, readings, artwork, photographs, and other elements of how you will honor your loved one.

You may have to close bank accounts, handle insurance claims and cancel policies, wade through legal issues, change wills. There could be Facebook pages and Instagrams to manage. For adults, work stuff must be retrieved, online subscriptions cancelled, credit card accounts closed, email accounts shut down, automatic payments stopped. The loss of a child brings a completely different set of tasks, as parents work to inform teachers, pediatricians, dentists, coaches, college administrators, and others that the unimaginable has happened. Anything to stop the e-mails from coming from groups and sports and schools, the ones reminding parents of something their children should be doing, would be doing, if life had not turned upside down.

Some things follow you down the road. The credit card debt that must be paid over time. The Facebook memory reminders that show a post you created in the depths of early grief, one you had no desire to ever see again. The life milestones of the close peers and friends of the deceased – those people whose lives moved on after your loved one’s ended. The legal tangles, if the death was a result of a crime. Even student loans, astonishingly, may not go away – witness this mother in New Jersey whose son’s loan was not forgiven after he was killed.

Then, waiting patiently in line behind all of the must-do logistics that happen early on, is the stuff. Clothing, possessions, photographs. Where does it all go? Do you leave things in place or clear everything out? Do you handle stuff item by item as you find yourself able? Do you give clothing away? Do you even wash it? Every item that reminds you of your lost loved one presents a decision point: Keep, put away, give away, throw away. Or none of the above, if you cannot yet face the decision.

How can we manage? Every loss carries its own unique set of circumstances, so no one way of managing will work for all. Nonetheless, here are some ideas.

First off, every adult can save a great deal of logistical difficulty by creating a will and advance directive (which may include a living will). Although drawing up wills with an attorney can be pricey, online services may do the job less expensively. Several are reviewed here. Separate from will creation, we can plan ahead regarding what we want to happen following a death – for ourselves, or for or with a family member. We may choose to do this when a loss is imminent, or ahead of time while all is well. Several books lay out helpful information about the logistics of loss (here’s one as an example). Services have also sprung up to help people plan how they will handle the logistics of death (several are detailed in this NY Times article).

But planning ahead doesn’t work for everyone. I imagine few parents would be motivated to plan ahead for the death of a healthy child, even if it would save trouble in the case of a sudden tragedy. Even adults who could more easily justify the effort and time may keep their distance – we humans often resist anything that puts us face to face with our mortality. And when a sudden death puts you on the defensive, fielding balls as they are thrown at you nonstop, it’s unlikely that you will have the time or inclination to peruse a book or engage a planning service.

When you haven’t been able to plan ahead, enlist as much help as feels right to you. Determine the less personal and sensitive tasks, and consider farming them out to people waiting to support you. Think about consulting with people you know who have been through the experience most recently. Talk to someone you trust who regularly supports the bereaved and understands the logistics involved – an employee at the funeral home you’ve engaged, for example, or a leader of your religious community. And talk, in general, to people you trust about what you need and are going through. The simple act of talking honestly about these things, within our close family and friend circles as well as without, may bring the topic out into the open a little more and reduce the embarrassment surrounding it. The less embarrassment and shame, the more likely that people will reach out for help when they need it.

Managing the details after a death is like walking through a field full of landmines, being shaken over and over by random explosions. New travelers, step gingerly, and look up when you can to search for others who can guide you. More seasoned travelers, be ready with a hand out to help, and try to point out the mines you know. Together, we can keep going.

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