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A good send off – dealing with a death in the family

Perhaps your Dad has been ill for years. You visit him regularly in his nursing home. You know that he is unhappy, that he gets angry, agitated, even aggressive.   He is very well cared for, and the nurses and carers are very fond of him. Sometimes he is pleased to see you, sometimes he begs you to rescue him and is furious when you say you can’t.

He has little falls, infections (often of the urinary tract), and he has lost interest in food, but on a good day he can still laugh, still enjoy looking at photos of the great grandchildren, still remember that he enjoys cricket or classical music.

When the day finally comes

And then one day, early in the morning, when you are listening to the Today programme and drinking a mug of tea, the phone goes. It is the call that you have always known will come – and you are caught unawares.  “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” said Benjamin Franklin. But unlike taxes, which come around with predictable and monotonous regularity, death comes only once and you have no notice.

You know that your parent or partner, in the last stages of a terminal illness or struggling with the increasing loss of faculties with dementia, is going to die, and may indeed want to.  But death always takes us by surprise.

If your parent or relative is in a nursing home, you have probably been asked about the arrangements – so you will have chosen a funeral director, decided whether you want a church service and whether it will be a cremation, or churchyard or green burial. But there are so many things to do, so quickly.  f you have siblings or grown up children who can help, do make sure you involve them. You will be glad of the help and it will help them to feel involved, doing something for the loved one that you have all lost.

What would they want?

There is plenty of advice out there about planning funerals, but how many of us actually do this? You may know what is wanted, if your parent, partner or other loved one has had time to prepare – a terminal illness sometimes allows the patient time to say what he or she would like, even to plan their own funeral. But some people are unwilling to think about their own death.

If you are looking after a parent who is old and ill, it is good to discuss funeral arrangements with your siblings or children, but death is still a taboo for many people, so you may have had to make plans on your own and hope to take the rest of the family with you when it actually happens.

Assuming that your loved one is in a nursing home or hospital, a doctor will already have been called, and the home may also call the funeral director. If you are lucky and already know one – perhaps they have already buried your other parent or an old friend – you will find it surprisingly easy to talk to them. As a profession, they tend to be good listeners, so you should expect genuine empathy and understanding of what is needed – from flowers to funeral music, newspaper death notices to handling distraught family members who feel they need to see the body.

They will be able to handle many of the arrangements for you – and unless the cost is going to be a serious constraint, it is good to let them do as much as they can.

Depending on the circumstances, there may have to be an inquest. The doctor will send a report of the cause of death to the coroner who will decide. This is not something to worry about, although it sounds alarming. In any event, you should contact the registrar and make an appointment to register the death. If you don’t know where to find the registrar, you can look it up online, but chances are the funeral director will be able to advise you. Don’t delay to do this, because registrars are very busy. You may have to wait a week or more to get an appointment and possibly travel to a register office some miles away.

The funeral director will help you to get a date for the funeral, even allowing for these possible delays. You also need to decide whether you want a death notice in the local paper or a national newspaper. Ask the funeral director to do this for you and they can help you with the wording, if needed. National newspaper advertising is very expensive, so you need to consider whether this is what your loved one would have wanted.

A good send-off

You also need to notify the solicitor, who may hold a copy of the will, or find the will if you or a sibling have it. If your parent or loved one had shares, it will be necessary to get a valuation for probate. If there is a house or flat to be sold, this can be left until after the funeral, but the solicitor will be able to advise and help you on all these matters.

If an inquest has to be held, this can delay the funeral. But assume that everything is going to be straightforward, and you can begin to get it planned, with the help of the funeral director. If it’s going to be a church funeral and burial, the funeral director will probably make the initial contacts for you, but you should meet the vicar, talk about the service, discuss what you would like – music, an organist, the order and form of the service (traditional, modern or your own words) and try to give the vicar some idea of your loved one.

You will have to decide whether you or one of the family or a close friend – or several of you – will talk about the life of your loved one – or whether you would like the vicar to do the tribute. In this case, try to give as much information as possible about the person and try to include some funny or typical anecdotes, so that the mourners will remember the actual person. There is nothing wrong with laughter at a funeral! Try to choose readings and music that your loved one would have wanted. The best thing anyone can say to you after a funeral is: “Your father/mother/partner would have loved that.”

There is no template and there are no rules for a funeral service, whether it’s at a crematorium or a green or woodland burial site. With a traditional church service, the vicar will advise you what prayers are necessary, but family and friends can choose everything else.

When it comes to the wake, a lot of people nowadays seem to go for a leaving party with alcohol, food and music chosen by friends and family. This is totally a matter of personal choice, but for an older person – say, 80 or over – something more dignified may be appropriate. The question you should ask is, what would she/he have wanted? If they would have wanted “a good send-off”, then go for it, but allow time and space for quiet thought, for people to remember the person who has died, to share memories and to begin to mourn.

Mourning and memories

You cannot foretell how the death of a loved one will affect you. We no longer dress in black for a year and shun social gatherings. But the loss of somebody you have loved – in the case of a parent, someone you have known all your life, even if the relationship was often difficult and complicated – will affect you deeply.

One friend, whose relationship with her father was never easy, was amazed how “the memories kept flooding back” and another, whose mother died after some years of dementia, was struck by how emotional she felt, even though it was a release for her mother, and a relief for her. If you were very close, the pain never really goes away, although it is blunted by time and there will be days or even weeks when you don’t think of your lost loved one.

If you are in full time employment, you may have a sympathetic employer who will allow you whatever time you need. Other employers will have rules and you may find you have to return to work quickly after the funeral. This can be very difficult because your fellow employees will forget that you have just suffered a bereavement and may be impatient and critical if you aren’t right on the ball from the start.

Nobody can tell you how to mourn, how long your mourning will last and how it will take you. Be prepared to be ambushed by your feelings. It may be a piece of music, some familiar food or a place that triggers memories. The business of sorting out a house and disposing off furniture, books, clothes and other possessions can be quite overwhelming.

The strangely comforting thing is that, just as you forget even acute pain like childbirth, so after a death the bad times often slip away and the memories that flood back are generally good, and you can share them with your siblings, children and friends.

Whatever your beliefs – religious, humanist or nothing – the only certain life after death is in the memories of people who knew you.  The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living – Marcus Tullius Cicero