Grief is the price we pay for love. Sadly, extremely appropriate words from HM the Queen, in 2017. Extraordinary, but no surprise to see her returning to duties earlier this week, but like so many I have wondered how she is faring in the immediate aftermath of the death of The Duke of Edinburgh.
Mostly I’ve worried about her rattling around Windsor Castle on her lonesome (all those empty rooms). She is surrounded by family, friends and more than a few employees; and whilst there’s little doubt she isn’t able to take care of herself, they will be making sure she’s eating, getting some sleep, a bit of fresh air, and not worrying about anything other than the absolute necessities. Maybe somewhat more complicated if you’re the Monarch obvs but no less important for her as for any of our elderly relatives facing the death of a spouse or partner.
Being the natural order of things doesn’t make such loss any easier.
We seem to be genetically pre-disposed to not being able to easily talk about death or grief. This doesn’t mean we can’t get organised before it happens. There are useful things to try and do ahead of the inevitable, and as you get to grips with life beyond. They won’t make the grief any easier, but they may make the initial months less anxious. Our top tips are as follows.
1. Organise the finances
From how the milkman or cleaner get paid, to simplifying savings, investments, and any other pots of money such as pensions, or bank/savings accounts; encouraging parents and relatives to simplify and document their finances whilst they still can, is both practical, and can be very reassuring particularly if one half of the duo has always been in charge of the finances. We have a useful podcast on this subject here.
2. Write a Will
One in three of us dies without writing a will. Bizarre when realistically no-one wants to leave a muddle for their family to untangle. It is scientifically proven that a will does not increase the chances of imminent mortality. Writing a will can be very straightforward and it will ensure that who gets what in terms of money and things that someone owns, will happen once they are no longer around to oversee the distribution.
3. Power of Attorney
We should all put in place a Power of Attorney as soon as we have responsibilities such as a home and a family. If someone becomes unable to make a decision about money, property or health issues, because of mental health or illness, someone else needs to be able to do so on their behalf. When someone dies, the power of attorney they may have set up ceases to be valid and the responsibility for everything they leave is then transferred to the executor of their estate – assuming there is a will and they have appointed executors. Often the attorney and executor are the same people, and in many cases the adult children.
Organising a funeral is possibly one of the nicer parts of all this – a positive way to start to remember someone you loved. This may be straightforward, or not. But leaving some idea of what people might like at their own funeral is incredibly helpful, and enables the family to feel they are doing what someone would have wanted.
5. Talking about Grief
As our friend bereavement specialist Julia Samuels said, “the older generation is swimming in grief”. You may have realised that your parents attend more funerals than birthdays…..and having probably already lost their own parents they are somewhat accustomed to grief. We all need to be a bit braver about talking about grief and the feelings it unleashes. Much better to try and talk about the person who has died than to bottle it up and suffer in silence. But, everyone deals with grief differently and it comes in waves and different forms. Our conversation with Julia is here.
6. Don’t rush big decisions
There does seem to be a temptation to deal with the practicalities of getting on as soon as possible. Some things need to be sorted out in the immediate aftermath; but hopefully others can happen over a bit more time. Clearing the house or the wardrobes can feel like the obvious next step. But, with clothes for example, consider when you might start to clear them, and where they may go; good advice if its to the charity shop – take them to one in the next town – so you avoid bumping into Mum’s favourite coat on the high street.
7. Help and support
In a recent podcast Dr Alex Bailey, geriatric psychiatrist warned of the subtleties between depression and grief and encouraged us to look out for the signs. There is lots of professional help available for the bereaved, and if you become concerned is really not coping it is worth making contact; from bereavement coffee mornings run by local charities, to helplines, and even counselling. These aren’t for everyone, so an alternative is to encourage conversations with others in a similar position might help. Sometimes not talking with family is a good thing.
8. A new life
I’m not sure I’d want a new life aged 80 plus as hopefully by then I would be content with the old one. But there must be merit in trying to encourage a different life; a return to old hobbies, trying out new things, seeing more of the family (covid notwithstanding), making new friends or just keeping more in touch with the old ones. I know one recently widowed man who, having never cooked for himself has started to work his way through his late wife’s favourite cookbook. He’s found a love of cooking and food; it doesn’t change anything, but he has embraced the challenge with enthusiasm, and I think he feels closer to her.
Everyone will make their own decisions about how they cope. There is no magic solution. None of these will speed up the process or change the pain of grief. They may make aspects of rebuilding a life a bit easier, and hopefully enable someone to do more than just put one foot in front of the other in time. It’s the price we pay.
Annabel James is the founder of Age Space. Her views are her own.