Losing your partner is hard and horrible, whether it's sudden or you’ve been living with anticipatory grief for days, months or even years. At a time when you are finding it hardest to function, and your widow brain is leaving you in a fog, you have to deal with all the admin that comes with a death.
Sadmin is exhausting and heart-breaking, especially as it's something we never dreamed of having to do. I had the support of my amazing mother-in-law who was grieving Tim's loss too, but in the end, much of it was something I had to do alone. It's also horribly overwhelming. I set myself the target to do at least one thing every day. Sometimes it was only one.
Tim's heart stopped unexpectedly but paramedics were in attendance, so I didn't have to arrange a medical certificate or contact a coroner – this was done for me. If the death is unexpected, call 111 for advice. If someone dies in hospital, the hospital will issue the medical certificate. If they die abroad, you will need to register the death in that country. The local British embassy, high commission, or consulate will help.
Where to start
In a daze I started by searching the web – it's what I always do when I'm stuck. I found the incredibly useful What to do when someone dies: step by step government website. In the four and a half years since I needed to use it, it's been expanded. There are other government resources on death and bereavement.
Registering his death was painful, as it made it finally so real, but the registrar was kind. She advised me to get multiple copies of the death certificate, which was very useful. She also told me about the Tell Us Once service that passes the information on to all government departments.
My mother in law, who had also been searching, told me about the bereavement support payment, which helped while I wasn't up to working full time.
Banks and building societies need to be informed, as do pension companies and life insurance companies. These should have bereavement helplines designed to make things easier, but some are better than others. The Death Notification Service covers a number of banks and building societies all at once, but doesn't cover all of them. Settld covers financial services, online and social media, household services and utilities, and Life Ledger covers a range of companies, from banks, insurers and pension providers to gas, water, telecoms and social media.
Another set of links I found useful were the organisations that notify advertising phone and mail lists, which cut down on a lot of junk mail with his name on it. I do still get the occasional call – when they ask to speak to Tim Dudley I say, "that would be hard as he's been dead since 2018". Sometimes widow humour is the only way to survive.
Tim died intestate, and I handed this over to a lawyer. I could have done it myself, but at the time I just couldn't deal with it, along with everything else, and the money seemed a worthwhile thing to pay. For people who have died with a will, the government website has information on applying for probate.
Other things that come up under sadmin:
Sadmin is made easier with plans in place – however, Tim died suddenly and unexpectedly, so I didn't have any passwords or lists of accounts, and couldn't access his email.
The two sides of sadmin
Writer and activist George Monbiot wrote about sadmin in the Guardian, after trying to cancel his late mother's Vodafone mobile phone contract. He got passed around the system, experienced hostility and rudeness, and faced demands from people to speak to his frail and confused father, despite Monbiot having power of attorney. Finally, after three months, Monbiot's sister cancelled the direct debit and wrote to HQ. Monbiot's father then faced a barrage of calls from a debt collection agency (thankfully fielded by his carer). Monbiot tweeted about this, starting a thread of hundreds of posts from people facing similar awfulness. One was still paying for her late daughter's mobile a year after her murder.
People I know have had call handlers ask to talk to the account holder, and have brought urns to the phone, or suggested conversations through mediums. Another example of widow humour.
I generally had fairly good experiences. There was the threat to take Tim to court for not paying a bill that had gone to his email, and they backed off immediately when I explained.
There was one that was tough but that turned out well. Tim had a bank account, a loan, and a business account. Closing the bank accounts wasn't too hard, and I was told verbally that the loan was to be written off, as Tim had no liquid assets. However, the letters continued to arrive. I went round and round, until I finally got to someone who said that it wasn't his department, but that he would put me on hold and do the 'going around' for me. Every now and then he'd pop back on the line to make sure that I was okay. He finally got to the woman in the bereavement department who I'd spoken to before. She confirmed that the loan was written off, that she would make sure that the letters stopped (the letters that helpfully said, 'contact us below' and there was nothing below), and if any more letters arrived I should tear them up or send them to her. I cried with relief, and told her to make sure that her manager and the manager of the man who put me onto her knew about what had happened, and how great they had been.
Trigger warning: Discussions of death, including violent death
It's October. The days are getting shorter, the leaves are starting to turn yellow and red and gold. The nights are getting colder and there's a hint of frost in the air. The shops are filling with orange and black. With pumpkins, costumes and masks. And if you live somewhere where people decorate their houses and gardens, there might be skulls and coffins and ghosts all over the place. There'll be children dressed up knocking on the door for sweets. And then, a few days later, Remember remember! The fifth of November, with bonfires and fireworks. Parties, food, drinks, dressing up, playing games. It's just fun, after all.
For some widows, though, Halloween and Bonfire Night can be really hard.
The imagery of death around Halloween all over shops, people's houses and gardens, and in social media, such as skulls, skeletons, fake tombstones and coffins, can bring back awful memories and trigger flashbacks. The coffins bring back some of the intrusive thoughts that I have fought to deal with over the past four and a half years.
For people whose partners have died a violent death, the images of bodies with nooses around their neck, or with bleeding wounds, can be devastating. Halloween depicts graveyards as scary, with bones and reaching arms, not as the safe resting places that we have created for the people we love.
The sounds and smells of Bonfire Night can be particularly hard where death by fire or gunshot has left widows with PTSD. These can also be difficult for autistic widows.
What to do?
There are so many 'what ifs' after we lose someone
I've looked back over some old posts of mine on the Widowed and Young Facebook forums (WOC is short for the Widowed and Young Without Children group).
I have managed to avoid the what ifs so far. Coming up to 14 weeks, they are fighting their way in. He was tired and sometimes out of breath but he was doing a lot of lifting and carrying - what if that was early signs of heart failure and not just him overdoing it. What if the rough night on that last night wasn't just one of his frequent stomach bugs and was the early signs of his heart stopping. What if...
23 May 2018 -14 weeks after his death
Having a bit of a wobbly week. Struggling with an upsurge in the guilt and what ifs about Tim's death - what if I had noticed he was more tired, what if I had insisted that we got more help moving books from one storage to another.
Nov 2018 – nine months after his death
Can I have a WOC hug, please? Doing a lot of clearing out at the moment. Been shredding paperwork and this morning it was Tim's medical paperwork from some years back. He had hyperlipidaemia and type II diabetes and had an angiogram some years ago. It's brought back the few months before he died, when he was starting to get tired. At the time I though he was just working too hard (we were moving books from one storage unit to another) but now I see that it was the beginning of his heart failure. I am hypersensitive at the moment as I am just a few weeks away from his second anniversary, but I am having major attacks of 'what if...'
Feb 2020 – two years after his death
My mental and health physical health weren't good in the few months before Tim died. What if that was the reason he didn't tell me he felt ill, or the reason I missed it? Or what if being ill meant that I made his last few months unhappy?
Coping with the what ifs
I believe that we get these feelings because our brain is trying to explain things, and attempting to deal with our feelings of helplessness. A fellow WOC said to me "what ifs are like demons on the shoulders of our grief, whispering in our ears at times when we are most vulnerable". What comforts me is that Tim and I loved each other, and that he died at my side.
When we get what ifs, it's important to remember that hindsight is 20/20, and what-ifs are generally completely unrealistic. It's like looking at a puzzle – when you first glance at it, it seems unfathomable, but once you have the answers it seems so obvious.
When you get caught in what ifs and if onlys:
Grief hijacking – also known as competitive grieving, grief, emotional or energy vampires, grief tourists – call it what you like, it’s exhausting and heartbreaking. You’ve started a conversation, whether on social media or in real life, about your loss, and the conversation twists to become about their loss, not yours. They might be grieving for your person, they might bring in their own loss in a way that it seems like they are playing grief Top Trumps. They might be the acquaintances who pop up from your past to tell you that you are brave, or share your social media posts to show that they are ‘supporting’ their grieving friend without ever actually doing anything to help. Whichever it is, the person you are talking to has made it all about them.
If you are approached by grief vampires and grief hijackers, have boundaries to help protect yourself. Share only what you are comfortable about sharing, and say no if they ask too many questions or want to share things about you on social media that you want to keep private.
If you, as the friend or family member, want to respond to people’s posts or stories about bereavement, think about what to say. Remember that it’s about them, not you. And if you are going to offer help, be there and do it.
Planning a funeral for my husband wasn't what I expected to be doing a few months after my 50th birthday. What was a little – ironic, or just providential – was that, a few weeks before he died, we had talked a little about it on the drive home from a friend's burial. Some people have the opportunity and the foresight to discuss funeral plans in detail; all I knew was that he wanted to be buried in Somerset to the soundtrack of Shine on you Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd.
I used the funeral director that had arranged my parent's funerals a few years before. If you know the person that you want to lead the funeral, whether religious or humanist, ask if they have any recommendations. The National Association of Funeral Directors and National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors have lists.
Preparing for burial or cremation
You will need to choose whether you want your partner to be buried in a coffin or a shroud. There are eco-friendly coffins available, from bamboo to wool, and even printed cardboard coffins.
The undertaker is likely to ask you if you want clothes for your partner. After holidays together where I would pack his bag if he was working late before we went away, I distinctly remember the sadness of packing Tim's bag for the last time.
Include underwear and shoes if you want to, and any little things that it feels right. Roald Dahl's coffin included chocolate, a bottle of Burgundy, his favourite HB pencils, a power saw, and his snooker cues. Other examples include flowers, letters, photos, books, rosary beads, religious texts, jewellery and soft toys. Tim was buried wearing his wedding ring, his suit (he'd joked after that funeral a few weeks before that it had been worn to more funerals than weddings), and the shoes he wore for his last acting role. In his pocket were the tickets for the race meeting we were due to go to the day of his funeral, and a Jaguar key ring he'd got the Christmas before from a lovely friend.
Be aware that funeral directors may have to remove things from the body or the coffin. For a cremation, these include pacemakers, leather, latex or vinyl shoes and accessories, and bottles of spirits. For a green burial, all clothes and items should be natural materials, and be biodegradable.
Planning the ceremony
You can choose to have a religious or humanist ceremony, and locate it where you want to (provided they are happy to have a coffin on site). This could be from a place of worship or crematorium to a pub, from a boat to a football ground, from a field to your own garden. You can have hymns, music, poems, bible readings or readings of poetry or prose that mean a lot to you. You can ask friends and family to talk about your partner, and you can speak yourself. From experience, I would suggest having a 'second' who has a copy of your reading or eulogy, and who can step in on your behalf if you can't carry on.
A basic structure:
Music can be recorded or live. If you get friends to do the music bear in mind they might struggle to sing of they are overcome with emotion in the moment.
The order that things are done can be changed around. For my parents, there was a short ceremony at the crematorium for just family, and then we moved to the church for a service. Tim's burial immediately followed the church service. At a friend's funeral, we had a service and then waved her farewell at the gates. The funeral directors went to the crematorium and we went to the wake.
There are traditionally four or six pallbearers, and these can be men or women. They will carry the coffin at waist or shoulder height. It's often done by friends or family, supported by the funeral director's team. It's a big responsibility, and it's important to accept that some people may not wish to do this.
Funerals can be expensive, but there are ways that you can keep the costs down. Check whether your partner had a pre-paid funeral plan, but be aware that this may not cover everything. If you are on certain benefits, you can claim a Funeral Expenses Payment from the government up to six months after the funeral.
You can invite just specific people to the funeral – for example family or close friends – or open it up more widely by posting details on social media, in the newspaper, or online, for example on the funeral director's website.
Particularly in the Western world, black is a traditional funeral colour. This may go back to Roman times, where people in mourning wore a dark-coloured toga (toga pulla). If this doesn't suit you, you can ask people at the funeral to wear a particular colour that's important to you, carry a certain flower, or wear bright clothes.
Setting up a live stream
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, many people were unable to attend the funerals of families and friends. Livestreaming funerals became more common, helping people to come together. As a result, an increasing number of churches, crematoria and funeral directors are now offering livestreaming. This allows people who are ill, too elderly to travel, or who live too far away to be able to attend. It's also possible to set up a livestream using Facebook, WhatsApp or Skype.
The day of the funeral will be tough. Check out the location so that you have somewhere to escape to if you need it. Stand tall, be proud of the person whose life you are celebrating. Clench your buttocks if you need to hold things in, but otherwise – weep silently, sob, howl, smile, laugh, talk or be silent. Or all of those, in any order. This is their day, but it is a day for you too.
Negotiating with families
You may have the freedom to have the day exactly as you want it, but you may also have to negotiate with family. If you and your partner have made plans beforehand, make sure everyone knows what will happen, and that it is how your partner wanted it. However, your partner's family may have fixed ideas in what they want. You may need to stand your ground, but you also may need to make some compromises. They are grieving too.
This is one of a pair of blogs - see also Clearing after bereavement: My story
Clearing after bereavement is hard. It’s full of triggers and tough memories and it's not something we ever imagined ourselves to have to do. Don't feel guilty clearing things out. This is your home, and is where you need to feel comfortable living.
There is no single right time for doing it. For some people, sorting out a partners' belongings happens the day after the death, for some it takes years, for others, it never happens. It also doesn't always happen all at once – it could be in two goes, or six goes, or ten goes, or sometimes a lifetime of goes. I did some sorting, got rid of some clothes and changed the layout of the bedroom, but it took about two years, the death of a friend, and a global pandemic for me to tackle it properly.
I did the clearing on my own, as it meant that I could work at my own speed, and not have to stop to explain things or answer questions. I did have a couple of friends on hand who I could message for support, or to show pictures of my progress. I also took frequent breaks as it was both physically and emotionally exhausting. But it's not the same for everyone – you might want to call in a friend or a family member for practical help, or just moral support. For some people, the process has to involve other people. This can be hard, and will need a lot of conversations and patience from everyone involved.
When you start clearing, divide things into categories:
Break the process down into manageable tasks, and start with the things with the fewest memories attached to them. Do an hour a day or a day a week, and tackle it room by room, or even cupboard by cupboard. Step away for a bit whenever you need to – go for a walk, have a nap, watch or listen to something.
If you are not working to a deadline, don't feel rushed – if you're not sure about whether to keep something or get rid of it, put it away until the next round of clearing. Some people will be under a deadline to sort things out – there may be a date to leave the property, or there may be pressure from other family members. If you have this kind of stress, enlist friends to help and to support you.
Create a memory box for things you want to keep but don't want to see every day, and take photos of things that are important memories, but you don't want to keep.
Be prepared for the grief attacks. And for the unexpected. But also, enjoy the happy memories. However hard it is, decluttering and rearranging your home can be a very positive experience. I found that it helped me to process my grief, which I didn't expect, and to reclaim the house as my home.
Clothes and jewellery
CDs, DVDs, games and books
Phones, tablets and computers
Some days we potter along. Everything is, if not marvellous, then pretty much okay. Then seemingly out of the blue comes an attack of grief. It feels as if you are standing on a beach and a wave has come up and caught you behind the knees, throwing you off balance. Grief attacks can seem overwhelming.
What triggers a grief attack?
A few months after Tim died, I watched a Lancaster fly across my village. I knew that Tim would have loved it, would have had so many stories about it, and I dissolved into grief. I could put my big girl pants on and be 'brave' for a birthday or an anniversary, but I couldn't prepare myself for opening a box and finding the piece of paper and yellow roses that he left on my desk to celebrate the anniversary of our first kiss. Or the realisation that the washing contained only my clothes, not both of ours. Or finding the half-made Airfix model or the half-read book.
Grief attacks can be triggered by the biggest and the smallest things – thinking about milestone dates, suddenly hearing a piece of music on the radio, someone saying a particular phrase, seeing someone wearing a particular colour or style. Even a particular kind of weather can trip off a grief attack.
When a grief attack hits, sometimes we need to just 'sit' in the grief, and let it wash over us. Cry if we need to. Be gentle with ourselves. Remember that the attack will pass. And then breathe slowly, and use grounding techniques to return to the here and now.
After Tim died, I became so tired. The kind of tired that squashes you flat. The kind of tired that it felt like even my bones hurt. Feeling this exhausted can be scary. But it is a normal part of grief.
Why does grief make you tired?
You're in shock
A psychological shock triggers the fight, flight or freeze response. Our bodies fill with the stress hormone cortisol, desensitising us and putting us on alert. After a bereavement, particularly a sudden and unexpected one, our cortisol levels remain high for a prolonged period of time, leaving us exhausted.
Your brain has so much to process
Our brains get tired when they are being asked to process information all the time – every decision requires energy. So grief exhaustion is both physical and mental.
You can't sleep
Grieving often means your head just won't stop – it's full of spinning thoughts and tough memories. You may also be having nightmares, flashbacks or intrusive memories. All of these will affect your sleep.
There's so much to do
Bereavement leaves us with a lot of admin, from bank accounts to businesses, and from phone contracts to funeral arrangements. There is so much that needs to be completed, and some things must be done in specific timelines.
Losing someone also means losing their help at home. This can include routine jobs around the house and caring responsibilities. For some people, bereavement means having to find somewhere else to live, sometimes at short notice.
You are hypervigilant
Hypervigilance is a state of extreme alertness where you are constantly assessing the environment for threats, both real and perceived. You may feel that since you have been through a traumatic event, what's to stop another? Hypervigilance can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is exhausting in itself, as well as making it hard to relax or sleep.
You aren't eating properly
It can be hard to eat well when you are grieving – it may not seem worth it to cook for one, or your appetite may not be what it was. Not having enough of the right kind of nutrients leaves you without energy. Both your diet and your alcohol intake can also affect the depth of your sleep.
What to do?
I'm a writer by trade. Science writing pays the bills and fiction provides the creativity. After Tim died, I used my blog as part of my grieving, sometimes writing to Tim, sometimes documenting the steps I took, other times just setting down in words how I was feeling. There were bees in there too. Writing The Widow's Handbook is helping me work through parts of my grief, and helping me to understand why I feel how I feel.
Writing your grief
Writing can be a way of making sense of the world, of getting feelings out of our heads and putting them in order, of processing our grief. It can help us to manage the chaos in our heads. Writing can trigger emotions, so be prepared for what I call grief attacks, those moments that feel like waves of the sea catching you behind the knees and sweeping you off your feet.
Writing can actually help our health – it can boost our immune systems. It can also improve our mood. While depression isn't the same as grief, a study of people with depression showed that writing every day lifted their mood.
Just sit down and do it, with paper and pen or pencil, or on a computer or tablet. Whatever works for you. Don't worry about whether what you are writing is any good. Later you can edit it if you want others to read it, or if you want to keep it as a record, but for now, just pour it out on the page.
Writing for yourself means that you can be more open and honest than you perhaps can be with other people. You can just let out exactly how you feel, whether that's anger, relief, hope or heartbreak.
How to start
The spoon theory was created by Christine Miserandino to explain to a friend about what it felt like to have the chronic illness lupus. She used it to describe how every task in a day requires a block of energy, be it physical or mental, and that she had to budget out those blocks across the day. She wrote it up as an essay for her blog.
"I quickly grabbed every spoon on the table; hell I grabbed spoons off of the other tables. I looked at her in the eyes and said 'Here you go, you have Lupus'… I asked her to count her spoons. She asked why, and I explained that when you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of spoons. But when you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many spoons you are starting with. It doesn’t guarantee that you might not lose some along the way, but at least it helps to know where you are starting. She counted out 12 spoons…. I asked her to list off the tasks of her day, including the most simple. As she rattled off daily chores, or just fun things to do; I explained how each one would cost her a spoon… I think she was starting to understand when she theoretically didn’t even get to work, and she was left with 6 spoons. I then explained to her that she needed to choose the rest of her day wisely, since when your spoons are gone, they are gone."
Spoons and grief
The spoon theory was created for chronic illness, but it can also be used for the impact that grief has on your physical and mental spoon numbers. Early on in grief I was so tired that my bones hurt, which took away some of my physical spoons. I also had widow brain, which took away some of my mental spoons too. Creating a spoons graphic based on your own needs can be a useful exercise to help you understand what you need, and what you can do to look after yourself.
What you can do
Notes about spoons
I was widowed at 50 when Tim, who I expected would be my happy-ever-after following a marriage break-up, died suddenly from heart failure linked to his type 2 diabetes. Though we'd known each other since our early 20s, we'd been married less than ten years.