When it comes to death, as in life, the best motto is ‘be prepared’. That’s certainly the real life experience of Carole Sandberg, author of The Gift of Preparation, a handbook designed to relieve some of the stress around the death of a loved one (first published in 2013 and now in its second edition).
Carole was no stranger to good preparation in life. As a life coach and full-time carer for her ill husband for two years, she thought she had anticipated it all in their careful planning for his death. Banking and financial matters, insurance, subscriptions, utility bills, an advanced care directive.
Yet when he died in 2011, there were still things they hadn’t considered.
The big one was her husband’s Facebook account. Not much of a Facebook user herself, it hadn’t occurred to Carole that deactivating her late husband’s account would present such difficulties. But not knowing his password led to a fretful few days for the family before she worked out the right process, found the relevant form and was able to send a death certificate and letter to enable that to happen.
While we’re talking about that, multiple copies of the death certificate – each stamped and certified – is part of the advice she shares in her useful book.
“I recommend you have 20 copies of the death certificate and each has to be a certified copy. I can tell you that nobody in Australia will accept a photocopy of the death certificate unless it has an original stamp and signature of certification,” she says with the grim authority of someone who found out the hard way.
Traps for new players
But for many people, the online presence can be a huge obstacle. “Yes, there are Facebook and email passwords but these days there is so much more. Memberships, subscriptions, internet banking, frequent flyer account numbers and passwords; multiple frequent flyer accounts,” she says.
“I don’t think the average person realises how much is online these days. Many people have automatic payments set up from particular bank accounts for certain bills and the first their partner knows about it is when they open some mail saying they are about to have their phone or electricity disconnected because the account has been closed or changed or doesn’t have enough money in it.”
Of course all these things can be ultimately resolved over time without knowing account names, numbers and passwords of everything but the point Sandberg makes is that it is extremely confusing, time consuming and stressful at a time when you’re feeling most fragile and vulnerable.
“The bureaucratic red tape is mind boggling when a death occurs,” says Sandberg.
“To avoid stress you need to be on top of your game, even while you’re grieving. It’s not a time when ignorance is bliss.”
Making the effort
Taking the time to record the important personal and administrative details of your life and share them with your loved ones and others who may be important, like your lawyer or accountant – long before you think you need to – will make a huge difference to the grieving experience of your loved ones when you ultimately do pass away, Sandberg says.
She recommends imagining the scenario from both sides: yourself in the situation of losing your loved one and the processes you would have to face, unprepared, uninformed and in grief; and the same scenario for your loved one, should you die unexpectedly. Do you know all the details you will be expected to know in order to attend to your loved one’s affairs? As the one left behind, would you know where to start? Would your loved one be any better off if it was them left behind?
The Gift of Preparation is a very practical book, full of checklists and advice and space to record your own information. But it’s not all just about the banks and bureaucracy. There are considerations about advance care directives, personal messages for people, express wishes, final requests.
In the foreword to this second edition, Ita Buttrose describes it as doing the community a great service.
“Everyone should have a copy of this thoughtful, immensely practical and useful book. It tackles end-of-life issues that people need to confront, in a sensitive and loving way. Author Carole Sandberg has done the community a great service in showing how best we can cope when someone close to us dies,” Buttrose writes.
Some minimal advice Carole Sandberg offers:
Five very important areas to have organised to make things easier for your loved ones later
- Passwords and access codes
Check out and record all passwords and access codes – create a list of everything that has/needs one, write the information down and put it somewhere safe. I had a tough time removing my late husband’s details from Facebook – this can be avoided by thinking this through now, whilst you can.
We are now a society of passwords and access codes so check everything out carefully.
Your will needs to be no older than 3 years – update it now and include specific names of beneficiaries with clearly stated items. You may wish to leave some very personal things to close friends – make sure this information is included. Leave a copy with someone you trust and your solicitor/lawyer.
- Advanced Care Directive
Also known as a Living Will – take some quiet time and think about this. What would your wishes be if you are in a situation where you are no longer able to communicate this? There are forms available online or you can create your own wishes within the body of a letter – and have this witnessed so it is a legal document. Retain a copy for yourself, give one to your family doctor and one to a close family member or friend.
Share with your partner, spouse or close friend who you live with all the areas in life you have been responsible for and take the time to sit and share the information, where relevant, show them, teach them and above all, make it fun. Then reverse things and have them share the details of their responsibilities with you and get them to explain, demonstrate, etc., so you are both totally savvy about what is going on and what will need to be done down the track when one of you is no longer there to deal with everything.
- Filing and collating information
Set up a “Passing Away” folder or a “When I am unable to deal with these” folder and start filling it with the above information and much more.