Please pardon the delay. Here it is, late Sunday afternoon, and I am just getting around to typing my Saturday morning blog. Nine days ago there was a death in my family. Since then, every day has been full of logistics and details with too little time for respect and reflection. I notice deaths more because of facebook. Until we develop immortality, death is a consequence of life. Friend’s posts make me much more aware of its constant presence within any circle of friends and family. A life should be paid proper respect, and the survivors should be given time to acknowledge, accept and adjust; unfortunately, the traditional mourning period now includes paperwork and procedures. When can we reflect? When can we mourn?
Some readers have asked for details; but, while I live out large portions of my life in public via my writing, I also think that some topics deserve discretion. Just because technology means we can reveal everything doesn’t mean we should. Privacy is essential to being humane in human society.
The generalities are pervasive enough. I’ve witnessed many people pass through a similar story. With news of the death, there’s a day of transition: dramatically reassessing priorities, shifting schedules, and changing spending accordingly. For some, there’s a day of travel. Helping the closest ones with basic housework is obvious. They are probably emotionally overwhelmed. Ailments may provide warning; but, how do people deal with sudden deaths like accidents? Processing emotions is a big enough task without worrying about cooking and cleaning. Then there’s an event or two or three, depending on any stated desires and the community response. Before and after, there are calls and cards from friends and family. Answering them all can be a full-time job. Eventually, the daily adjustments happen. Shared chores are taken on by one less, and lessened by the needs of one. Old routines are redefined. Eventually, visitors return home, maybe spending yet another travel day. Then, everyone re-engages with their postponed jobs, chores, and plans. It can take a week to recover from a week.
Sometime in our society’s development, we passed from an era when deaths happened without ceremony to an era when rituals helped people deal with the loss. I believe that was a major maturation for our species. Millennia probably passed with little change in the mourning process.
Too often is seems that the ritual and the true mourning have become secondary to laws and regulations, logistics and finances. What has to be reported? When? By whom? What happens if it isn’t? Social information flows quickly thanks to technology, which can initiate impressive support networks; but, much of the official nature of a life must be handled by the closest family member who usually has the least time, sleep, and emotional reserves. Too much time, in my opinion, is spent chasing down financial accounts, passwords, verifying identities, sitting on hold or trying to explain to a computer why the other person on the account can’t provide the necessary information. Automation and well-designed procedures are instituted to save time and money for corporations, and supposedly indirectly us; but, their intentional lack of humanity draws out a painful process to someone who is already experiencing one of the greatest pains in life.
Estate planning is a major aspect of the personal finance industry. I know many financial advisors who are very compassionate; so, I know they didn’t design an intrusive process on purpose. I suspect decades of successive lawsuits from contested estates have nudged the process earlier. Undoubtedly, some people have taken advantage of mourning periods and similar actions need to be guarded against. But, how can anyone in emotional trauma be expected to suddenly react fully rationally? Instant cures don’t happen. Yet distraught people are asked to quickly make decisions that affect the rest of their suddenly changed lives. Even documented and negotiated plans may make no sense. Anticipated departures can only guess at the changes in everyone’s lives. Rationality can be hired. That’s one reason professionals are available. But, the changes can be so significant that, like any other plan, as soon as it is initiated the rest of it is subject to change.
I have no clear answer. Maybe a waiting period would stretch out the process, giving emotional processes and rituals more room and respect. Like any such general rule, for some it wouldn’t be long enough, others wouldn’t want or couldn’t accommodate a delay.
This is the situation we have, and like so much of life, we can wish for a different world, but we have to deal with the one we’re in – and work on changing it.
Personally, I can take some time now to collect my account information, list my passwords in some secure place, identify an executor and a backup, and basically do all of those things that we are always encouraged to do. They seem like such a nuisance. Witnessing them in action emphasizes their usefulness. Reflecting on reality, knowing people who were lost suddenly, convinces me that it must be done. Respecting those who would have to sort through my accounts means making it as easy as possible for them. My approach to personal finance is to be personally responsible. That’s why I invested on my own in my own way and have accepted those consequences (even if I don’t like the current situation). Treating my “estate” with equal respect and responsibility is one thing that I can do to create less work for my survivors and give them more time for their emotions. I can’t do it later. I have to do it now.
And will I dive in and finish it tonight? Of course not. There’s a week’s worth of work to catch up on. Paperwork to fill out and pass along. And I still want to find some more time for respect and reflection in the quiet that is my home. But maybe, one step at a time, I’ll start pulling together a few lists. Tell someone where to find them. Every bit I do, saves someone hours later. Of all the legacies we can leave, time is the most valuable and if it is spent humanely then it is spent well.