Super fun topic, death of an estranged family member

I feel like I’m whenever I start a blog post, I end up apologizing for not blogging for a while. My catch-22 is I feel like I shouldn’t blog unless I have something interesting and of value to add, and the past few months, I haven’t felt that. In short, here is an explanation of what I’ve been up to the past few months that was the inspiration for today’s blog post. It serves a two fold purpose, explaining where I’ve been and using it as a fresh start for blogging. I’ve spoken about this a lot on my personal Facebook page and so if you are a friend, this entry may feel repetitive. I promise this week my blog will return to it’s normal shenanigans.

It’s not a huge secret that for most of my life I’ve been estranged from my mother. It’s a long involved story as to why, but the cliffs notes version is that my parents divorced a long time ago; I lived with my father and truthfully I was too young and immature to really understand my mother and mental illness. A friend who had a similar situation with her biological dad, messaged me in August to tell me that he had passed away that day and she was heading out of town to deal with it. I offered my condolences and told her that I did not know if I would be that good of a person when my own mother passes away. Less than 24 hours later, I was notified that my own mother had died due to long term, multiple substance abuse issues. It’s a day that I had anticipated and dreaded for a long time. As much as I wanted to avoid it, I was the “next of kin” and I had to deal with it.

This may seems like a really weird thing to blog about however, when I googled “dealing with the death of an estranged parent” it dealt with the emotional stuff. Obviously that’s a huge part of it and I’m not saying that process is not important, it is I went through it too! Before you can even deal with that, you need to get physically get through it, and it’s hard, weird and overwhelming. It’s one thing when a close family member dies. You want to do right by them, you know their wishes and who to notify. When an estranged parent or family member dies and you have to deal with it, it’s a bit confusing and chaotic. To understand where I am coming from, a bit of background on my own personal case. I had not spoken to my mother in almost two decades and even before that our relationship was tepid at best. She didn’t try and I didn’t try and yes, I have to live with that. Unfortunately, as I said above, she had quite a few substance abuse and mental health issues, a hoarding problem and therefore I think my situation dealing with her death was extreme since she had pretty much alienated everyone she knew. This is the list of what I wish I had known along with my own experiences.

  1. Usually with estranged family members they have burned bridges with family and friends; be prepared that you may or may not get a lot of help physically or financially. Try to at least notify people that your family member passed away, even if it’s an e-mail or Facebook message. It’s better than hearing about it second hand. As silly as it sounds, it may helpful to draw out a family tree so you don’t forget anyone. It’s a stressful time and you may draw a blank. I totally forgot to call my mother’s stepmother and also forgot she had two step siblings, oops. (To be fair, I probably could not pick them out of a lineup if I had to). Also, you may have to track down phone numbers and have awkward “hi, you haven’t heard from me in 20 years…” conversations. It’s weird, trust me. As far as handling things in my case, my cousin and aunt had been keeping an eye on my mother from a distance for years, were burnt out and I didn’t want to put that burden on them anymore. My brother has a family and he was limited in what he could do, so I did the physical running around mostly.
  2. Figure out their funeral and burial. This includes how it is going to be paid for and also in  terms of what to do for it. In my case, I had no idea what my mother would have wanted because I knew very little about her, and so I guessed. Other family members had very little input as well. I was “lucky” in the sense that my mother was in the Army in the 70s and I was able to locate her D-214 and therefore was able to use her VA benefits for the burial. While the VA does have it’s issues, I’m very grateful to them for the death benefits for veterans. Since I had no idea where my mother would have wanted to be buried, I had a funeral home do the cremation and had her buried in a military cemetery. I’m not going to lie, the fact that the plot was covered by the VA was a huge selling point but, I figured it was at least a dignified burial. While this sound awkward and cheap, it’s brutally honest. Would you want to pay for a plot for your neighbor from decades ago that you hadn’t seen or heard from since? It honestly was the equivalent of that for me. I thought about doing the an ash scattering and/or memorial, but it seemed trite and unnecessary because no one in the family was really interested in that kind of thing. Be prepared for awkwardness and feelings of indifference and be ok with it! There were questions that the funeral home asked me, that I had no idea as to the answer or had no opinion on, such as what type of emblem to put on her grave. At this point I had a “get it done” mentality I went with the most common thing per their suggestions. I could have beat myself up over it for hours and come to the same conclusion, “I don’t know” so why waste time? Remember, chances are you are planning a burial for someone you don’t really know and are doing the best you can.
  3. Piece together their finances and other important stuff as soon as possible. Notify social security (if applicable) ASAP because it takes a while for them to get their act together and you do not want to have to be in a repayment situation with them. (To this day I still do not understand how they prorate checks). Chances are (like me), you probably have no idea what the deceased’s financial situation was. As much as we all hope that we have a secret millionaire of a relative, chances are, it’s not going to be that and it’s not going to be pretty. Depending on how organized/disorganized they were it may be a detective game. My mother was a bit of a mixed bag in the sense that she had a lot of important papers in her car (who carries their birth certificate, divorce papers and army discharge papers in their car… my mother that’s who) but she had not opened mail in three years. (That was fun). Pulling her credit report helped answer some questions but others were a mystery, such as where she had her checking account. I finally found a 5 year old expired debit card and went to the bank with her death certificate, explained the situation; and yes it was literally “Hi, my estranged mother died and she may or may not have a checking account here, can you check?” I thought for sure they were going to throw me out, however I found that people were more receptive and willing to help if you lay everything on the table and admit how weird the situation is. Another instance was when the cable company was hassling me over the return of boxes and I bluntly said “she was a hoarder, there are bugs. Do you want the boxes back?” They didn’t. I know that some will say it’s not their business and this is the truth, but most people do have compassion and are willing to help if they understand the full situation.


  4. Be strong, keep your guard up and use common sense. When you are dealing with a situation like this you have a lot of people telling you what to do. Some are involved and some unfortunately are not involved because they aren’t next of kin/executor/etc or they didn’t want to be, and just show up and make demands or even worse try and guilt you into something. For instance my mother’s landlord tried to extort money out of me saying that “my mother would have wanted it that way.” Without going into a rant that could be a blog post on it’s own about that, just keep your emotions out of it and say no. Run the situation by a neutral friend if you have to. I got sucked into a bit of drama and I really wish I hadn’t. Take a deep breath and think things through, no matter what it is, it can wait for a good sleep and tomorrow.

To sum it all up from “tips” and story is that it’s going to be weird, it’s going to be awkward and that’s okay. When the time comes for the emotional stuff, grieve in your own way. Don’t let anyone tell you that you should not be more or less upset. People will guilt you on both ends. As cliche as it sounds, just do you.

On a last personal note, someone told me early on that I should use this as an opportunity to get to know my mother. Out of all the “advice” I received I actually think this was wise. I did and here’s what I have to say. Unfortunately, she wasn’t well. She was under VA care and I think they did the best they could because you cannot help someone who doesn’t want help, and you have to find a balance between investing resources and “treat and street.” However with all the crazy, she was a veteran, served this country and that I’m very proud of.

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