It’s hard to talk about dealing with the death of a loved one. It’s easier to read about it.
It’s very understandable why. A loved ones passing bring feelings of sadness, guilt, and loneliness all at once.
There are a lot of things that family members have to deal with when a loved one passes, or preparing for a loved one to pass. My Uncle passed away this past Spring and I was completely unprepared for the legality and endless decisions families have to make, on top of dealing with their own emotions.
The Phone Call
One Friday morning this past March, I noticed my Uncle was calling me. I thought that was strange, as he usually texts, and it’s usually about the Dallas Cowboys, etc. (I was his daughter by proxy as he never had children.)
I had an unusually busy day at work, so I decided to call him back later that day. (Guilty moment #1). However, my phone kept ringing, so I answered and it was not my uncle. It was one of his friends informing me that he was found unconscious at home the night before, and taken by helicopter to a hospital. The issue was they couldn’t find him at any local hospital in the small Texas town where he lived or in nearby San Antonio.
I eventually found him after calling the local police station, fire station, and the hospital morgue. Somehow his name was lost in transit the night before, so he was listed as “unknown cable” at a San Antonio hospital. (Guilty moment #2).
The hospital operator told me I would have to describe my uncle to the nurse so they could confirm it was him. After identity was established, she asked how old he was and his medical history. I completely blanked (I was also in an Uber at this time with a co-worker going to a meeting). I completely forgot his birthday — I told the nurse I knew the year for sure and that he was born in the fall. (Guilty moment #3).
I also realized I had no idea what medicines he took or other pertinent details that they would need to know in order to treat him. I told the nurse I would have my other Uncle call and provide all those details.
It took a few days, but we learned that he had Stage 4 Lung, Liver and Brain cancer, with a large tumor on a lung. He never regained consciousness and he was on life support and rapidly deteriorating. The doctors informed us that the life support was essentially feeding the cancer and not him.
We made a family decision to take him off life support, and I flew down to be there. They had to administer morphine for four hours to ensure he would be 100% comfortable. His passing was actually very peaceful and I am so glad I was in the room.
Lesson Learned #1: Know where documents are, what the documents say, and that wishes are documented correctly
No one knew if my uncle had a will. We had quickly searched in his house while he was in the hospital and did not uncover any paperwork. He had informed me years ago in a text message that he wanted me to have his house and the dog. He never told my other Uncle or my Mom this fact, so it was a little awkward when I announced this as if they knew.
We actually found his will and advance medical directive, hidden in a nondescript folder, buried in a file cabinet, hours after his memorial service. He had not updated his will since 2009. His previous girlfriend was listed as the beneficiary, not myself.
We decided to uphold the will since it is difficult to fight in the State of Texas anyway. I actually felt peaceful about it – someone who was essentially my Aunt growing up will be able to live out the rest of her life, rent and mortgage free.
Furthermore, my Uncle’s advanced medical directive confirmed that we choose exactly what he wanted if he were ever in this situation. Such peaceful confirmation.
The questions of “do you have a will, where is it” are awkward, but I guarantee you the awkward moments and temporary drama those questions creates are nowhere near the anxiety of unknowns when you are forced to make quick decisions. So ask your loved ones. Just do it.
Lesson Learned #2: Don’t be too upset or guilty by the necessary actions required
We decided to have my uncle cremated. We believe this is what he wanted, especially since the cancer had stolen his identity and that’s not how he would have wanted to be remembered. After he peacefully passed, we were still sitting in the room with him when we found out the cremation company was stuck in traffic. It was a weird reminder that life rudely still goes on.
We also made the cremation decision based on the delay with the family cemetery plot. When my mom called the cemetery, they first said they would have to physically visit the site and determine if there was room for an additional spot. Then, they insisted to see my great-grandmothers death certificate in order to confirm proof of family relation. Thankfully I already had that saved thanks to ancestory.com, but it was still unnerving to my poor mother.
We also had issues filing his death certificate as we had to find his social security number. He received some disability income, and I couldn’t believe how fast the money was taken back out of his checking account once everything was filed correctly.
Lesson Learned #3: Keep in touch more
The last text I received from my Uncle was congratulating us on the Philadelphia Eagles Superbowl win. I had no idea he was rapidly deteriorating since Christmas. At Christmas, he was thinner than usual and complained that his throat and back hurt. That’s it. And the back was from an old roofing injury.
While I don’t think the outcome would have been different, I wish I would have had a better pulse on his actual state those last months.
We had his memorial service a few weeks later. Afterward, we distributed his ashes at various spots as a family. I was pleasantly surprised at how that was a family bonding moment for all of us.