When loved ones pass, grief can be overwhelming and children forgotten

Today I want to tell you about an unfortunate reality I have come across way too often.

A client of mine contacted me a while back. She was very apologetic. She said she wants to bring a friend to see me as she does not know what to do anymore. The distraught woman arrived and for an hour she sat and cried. All I could ascertain was that her husband had passed away a year before and she was left to cope with two young children. She could barely get through the day, let alone deal with the necessary paperwork. Bills were piling up and she had not opened a single piece of mail.

I asked her to bring all the unopened envelopes to our offices. A week later, she arrived with three shopping bags full of letters. I asked my staff to sort it into four piles:

  1. Letters that only required a signature from her to release the money to her. This amounted to R5 million.
  1. Letters required signed documents that had to be sent to the doctors that treated her husband to release additional funds to her. This amounted to a further R3 million.
  1. Letters from the Human Resource department at the university where he worked, which would ensure that his pension is paid over to her.
  1. Bills that needed attention.

Sobering realisations

I realised a number of things:

  1. Many executors of estates do not communicate in a meaningful, human way with those who are left behind.
  1. Several administrative and legal processes need to be completed when a person passes away and many, if not most, people do not know what needs to be done or how to do this. Compounded by grief, this uncertainty can become overwhelming.
  1. This woman needed an advisor that not only would go through the bare essentials to make sure that their products are administered. She needed someone who looked at the whole person, recognise where she was at and find ways to support her, even in the simple tasks of opening and sorting letters!
  1. Family and friends often show support initially – usually until the funeral is over. Then their support dwindles quite quickly. Most people ALSO do not know what to do, so wait for someone who knows a bit more to step forward… and in the end, nobody does. In the social sciences, this is referred to as the bystander effect.

What struck me later was the thought; what about the kids? How were they coping, if mom was not able to cope with her own grief? We so often forget about the children.

This stray thought made me remember another client.

Adrift in the Caribean

This client’s husband worked on a ship and was electrocuted in a freak accident on board. There were various complications with transporting the body back to the country that delayed the funeral.

She did reach out for help and contacted the pastor of her church. He became a regular visitor. One day when he arrived, her 15-year-old son opened the door. He became very angry, punched the pastor in the face, grabbed his mother’s car keys, jumped behind the wheel and sped off. Being an inexperienced driver, he lost control over the vehicle and drove into a tree. The car was a write-off, but luckily he survived. Of course, the insurance would not pay out, as he had no license.

What the mother and the pastor had not taken into consideration was the fact that the son had not said anything, he had felt jealous about the attention his mother was getting from the pastor (and vice versa) and suspected that his mother was trying to replace his father with the pastor!

Entrepreneurial spirit gone wrong?

As I contemplated this story, I remember a close friend’s son. After the passing of his father, he had withdrawn more and more into his own world. The mother tried to coax him out of his shell, but as time went on, the family thought this is just the way he is going to be. His mother dreamt of the day that he could find something to be excited about.

And so it happened that one spring he started showing a keen interest in gardening. Not wanting to discourage him or put him off, she decided to observe from afar. One morning she decided to take a walk down to the bottom of the garden to see what it was that he had been growing there. To her surprise, she found a forest of Dagga plants!

She called a family conference. Amongst those attending were two uncles with whom he had always had had a good relationship. When asked to explain himself, the young teenager said that he does not use Dagga himself, but he had done his market research and saw that this would be a good way to earn some of his own money. The mother turned to the uncles for backup. The younger of the two asked him when he thought he would be ready to sell? The elder wanted to know if the family can get a discount!

I guess the moral of the story is that relying on family support may not be in the best interest of the child.

Final thoughts

Like a hairdresser, I hear many people’s deepest stories and secrets. I hear the loneliness and fear and the hunger to be heard. It pains me to know that as a society we do not do more to support our nearest and dearest and, in fact, that so many of us don’t even know each other very well!

My concern goes further though – and this often makes my blood boil! There are so many professionals that should know better! Should DO better! As a society and as professionals, we have become so insular – we focus only on our lives and what is before us. We ALL need to broaden our field of vision and think further than the obvious. One person, alone, cannot do it all.

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