Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 3, Money

Part 3 in this series on taboo topics (*see below) focuses on money matters and why you should leave them alone.

Would you walk up to random people and pat them on the stomach? Of course not, except… Have you ever noticed that insensitive relatives, acquaintances, or even strangers will do that to women in the latter months of pregnancy? No matter that it’s intrusive, rude, and creepy. (It happened to me, more than once.)

Would you walk up to random people and ask them about their finances? Of course not, except… Have you ever noticed that insensitive relatives, acquaintances, or even strangers will do that to mourners in the earliest days and months of bereavement? No matter that it’s intrusive, rude, and creepy. (It happened to me, more than once.)

Here is what you need to know about the finances of those who are grieving:

1) Their finances are none of your business — unless

the bereaved asks you about money matters, concerns, or questions (in which case, you should limit your words to providing direct answers, not asking them questions or making assumptions), or

… you already have a professional financial relationship to the bereaved (and/or the deceased) as their financial or insurance adviser, accountant, broker, loan officer, etc., and your inquiries are

relevant to that relationship,

timely for the altered needs of the survivors, and

mindful that most major decision-making should be delayed for at least a year.

2)  Financial gifts may be desperately needed by bereaved families, even though mourners’ finances are none of your business. If the deceased was the primary (or even secondary) breadwinner in a family, the sudden loss of income can be financially devastating. Even small monetary gifts can help offset expenses, and they will show your tangible support for friends who have lost loved ones.

3) Death is expensive for its survivors.

Whether the death was expected (due to age and/or health issues) or unexpected (due to undiagnosed health matters or external forces), there are likely medical expenses. Big medical expenses. These may include (but aren’t limited to) doctor, hospital, and ambulance services (**see below for a digressive rant). The financial costs can be huge, and the emotional costs of drawn-out payments for treating the already-deceased loved one can be just as difficult to pay.

Funeral, burial, and cremation expenses can be prohibitive and drain a family’s financial reserves. Payments are often required up front. My home (and the land it stands on) still belongs to my mortgage company as much as it does to me. Even after it’s paid off, I’ll still owe property taxes as long as I own it. How awful it is that the only land I’ve purchased and own “free and clear” is fully uninhabitable: my husband’s burial plot.

Legal and business fees add up. I remember the sticker shock of having to pay for changing the title of my husband’s car to my name before I could sell it. Various accounts and deeds can cost even more. Eventually, every legal document or business account once in the name of the deceased must be updated, closed, or renamed, and these transactions can be costly.

 4) Not everyone has adequate — or any — life insurance (***see below).

Don’t assume.

Don’t judge.

Preexisting health conditions, finances, or emotional constraints may have prevented purchasing such policies.

5) Life insurance payments feel like blood money. They are not windfalls or fun lotto winnings. Their intent is to pay for current and future life expenses for the surviving beneficiaries.

ONLY named beneficiaries have the right to decide how such funds should be spent. Period. If you have an opinion on how it should be spent, keep it to yourself.

Do NOT ask about or comment on life insurance amounts. The subject is not only private — it’s painful. Survivors who are asked about whether they received life insurance payments may feel cornered or pressured into discussing details that only their financial advisers should be privy to. (Remember #1 on this list!)

Don’t ask to borrow money from life insurance funds.

I apologize if this post feels stern. I’ve developed a pretty thick skin by now, but I still remember some people’s intrusions during my earliest months of widowhood. Many meant well. I understood their concern for my well-being, and I continue to feel gratitude for the gifts generous souls sent our family at that time. However, I also recall the inappropriate questions of those who were more interested in satisfying curiosity than consoling my family.

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*I talk about other taboo topics — politics, religion, appearance, and legal status — in separate posts (while, yes, talking about the very things you shouldn’t talk about).

**My digressive rant:
The ambulance bill provided a double shock. The 5-minute “ride” cost more than $150 per mile, and when I received my credit card statement verifying payment, the expense was listed under “travel and entertainment.” While I appreciated the efforts of the EMTs who responded to my 911 call, and I didn’t begrudge paying for their efforts (fruitless as they were), seeing the cost listed as “travel and entertainment” infuriated me. Still does.
(Okay. Rant over now.)

***If you’re on the fence about purchasing life insurance and you have dependent family members, do it. NowEven small policies can help. I hope you outlive your policy, but if — Heaven forbid! — The Worst Thing (your death) should happen to your loved ones (as it did to me and mine when my husband died), having a financial cushion may be of indescribable help to them, even if it is a small one. [Note: I’m not endorsing any company or industry by saying this. I’m sharing first- and secondhand experience.]

Grief and Groceries, Part 2

Food is a basic human need, but for the bereaved, normal appetites are thrown askew. For some mourners, grief squelches all desire for food. For some it intensifies it.

Here are food-related ways to help bereaved friends:

Drop off food and/or bring cash (or gift cards) for restaurants or grocery stores. Besides the reasons I mentioned in my other post on this subject (*see below), death is costly to its survivors. Lost income, funeral and burial or cremation expenses, ambulance and medical bills, title transfer fees, and unexpected travel and lodging for relatives can break an already bereaved family budget.

Cash and gift cards for food will help grieving families (TealAshes.com).

Even small gestures toward food and other expenses can offer comfort — and be of practical help — after someone dies. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Drop off disposables. Throwaway plates and utensils, paper towels and napkins (not to mention facial tissue — lots of it!), and disposable foil or plastic serving dishes may not be environmentally sound options, but they will simplify tasks for mourners. Doing dishes and returning pans shouldn’t add to the already overwhelming burdens the bereaved face in every waking hour.

Coordinate quantities, kinds, and arrivals. Meals are helpful and essential, but if on the same day neighbors, friends, and church family drop off twelve chicken casseroles for a bereaved family of four vegetarians — or six coconut cakes for a couple with diabetes — neither the generous givers nor the grieving recipients will benefit.

Better late than never. Don’t limit mealtime help to the week of the funeral. Such active gestures will be deeply appreciated later as the bereaved faces arduous tasks of adjustment in weeks, months, and even years to come. When initial outpourings have slowed to a trickle, ongoing acts of support will offer needed comfort.

Invite bereaved friends to go grocery shopping with you, and offer to pick up staples for them. Grocery stores are HUGE grief triggers as mourners face aisle after aisle of their loved ones’ favorite foods — and their least favorites. I can’t count how many times I “lost it” at the grocery store during the first year after my husband died.

Ask grieving friends if they’ve had a drink of water lately. Better yet, hand them a cool glass or chilled water bottle. Bring them a case of water, juice, or other healthy beverages. The stress (not to mention the tears) of grieving cause dehydration that leads to headaches and further stresses on the body.

My appetite was so rewired by grief I couldn’t recognize normal hunger cues. For months after my husband’s death, I didn’t remember I was supposed to eat or drink. If not for my teenager at home, I wouldn’t have remembered mealtimes at all. Many days I’d graze on a handful of this or that (fruit, dry cereal, a slice of bread …) and I’d sip from the same glass of water all day long rather than the six to eight glasses I used to drink daily.

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*Also see Grief and Groceries, Part 1