No matter who you are or where you live, no matter how much money you make or how you spend your days, at some point in your life, you will experience grief. The definition of grief according to Merriam-Webster dictionary is a “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement”. Well, what does bereavement mean? “The state or fact of being…deprived of something or someone”. So, if we follow those two definitions, we can simplify the definition of grief as the distress caused by being deprived of someone (or something).
Have you felt grief before? When grief is mentioned, it’s normally associated with a loved one or a beloved pet. How did you feel when you lost your childhood pet? How did you feel when you lost a parent or sibling? What about a close friend? It’s horrendous when we’re “deprived” of someone, but it’s altogether too common. According to the United Nations World Population Prospects report, approximately 7,452 people die every day in the United States. In other words, a person dies in the US approximately every 12 seconds. If you then factor in the personal connections to those 7,452, the ones left behind that will be overcome with grief, that’s a lot of pain, a lot of confusion, and a lot of physical heart ache.
So, what happens when a loved one passes away? How are you supposed to deal with the grief that encompasses your entire being while also taking care of everything that was their life? You’re expected to sort through their possessions, delve into the paperwork, close accounts, sell off anything of “value” and trash what’s not worth keeping. You’re supposed to know what to do and when to do it.
But it’s hard to make decisions. It’s even harder to make decisions about a loved one who’s passed. They recommend not making any decisions for an entire year. Give yourself time to deal with the grief. But sometimes that’s not realistic. You have to sell the house or you need money from the estate to pay for medical bills. Or they lived with you and seeing their possessions every day is too much for you emotionally and physically draining on your person.
When the day arrives that you decide it’s time to sort through their life, it’s beneficial to have someone there with you. Whether it’s a friend, an acquaintance, or a professional, having someone walk through it with you will benefit you. They can guide you through paperwork or hold your hand through the memories. They can keep you focused on the task and not so much on the emotions. We all know how we’ll sit and read letter after letter and before we know it, 3 hours have gone by and we haven’t moved past the first box. Bring a friend.
Today, I’d like to focus on dealing with the paperwork of a loved one. The baby boomer generation kept a lot more paperwork than newer generations. As such, someone who lived for 80 years vs someone who lived for 30 years are going to have a much different quantity and quality of paper. So, this is when a professional organizer would be beneficial. The first goal is to find all of the financial paperwork: deeds, registrations, titles, financial accounts, pension information, wills, etc. Ideally, you were listed as a beneficiary, so it’s easier to update the information with the company and get everything turned over to you.
To start organizing the paperwork, choose a room that is not where the majority of the paperwork is stored. Maybe the dining room or kitchen, as opposed to the office. It’s always the goal to start small. You can build up your confidence with little accomplishments and feel encouraged to keep going.
Buy enough bankers boxes for all the papers you plan to store (and for easy sorting!), blue recycling bags, and trash bags. As you go from room to room, sort every piece of paper you touch into one of 5 categories (you may have less or more).
Category 1: Recycling
This is paperwork that you do not need or want to keep and will most likely will be your biggest pile. It’s the generic papers that do not have personal information on it. It could be a letter from someone you’ve never heard of and all they talked about was their vacation in Maui. Magazines or newspapers that have piled up. Printed recipes or instructions on how to turn on the computer. It could be an offer letter from Xfinity for bundling TV and internet.
Category 2: Sentimental
Create a second box that is to keep for now but possibly to throw in the future. This is geared towards your sentimental items. Any letters that were written by your loved one, diaries, handwritten recipe books of favorite meals, doodles you want to keep. Essentially, this will be all the personal stuff that you don’t want to take the time to actually go through in this moment (or make the decision to throw) because you know that it will make you emotional. You place it in this box so that you can go through it in private (or with a loved one) at a later time. Later could be that night, the next day, or five years from now; there’s no timeline on later.
Category 3: Others
This third box will be for other people. For example, a letter that was sent from the other person to your loved one. You may not want it, but you can keep it in this box and offer it to the other person. Or a joke in a newspaper that was displayed on the fridge for years and always reminded the loved one of the other person. Or a birth announcement (most of us have never seen our birth announcements and would love it returned to us).
Category 4: Important Docs
It’s recommended that you keep the last year of information for every open account, especially if you’ll file taxes on their behalf. So, if they have pets, keep the documents that list their veterinarian, shot records, when they’re due for a visit, etc. Keep all bank accounts, financial records, pension, Social Security. Keep a copy of the bills for all of the utilities, cell phones, memberships, etc. You most likely will cancel the contracts, but keep it as a reminder to cancel. Then when you cancel, file it in the “keep for one year then throw” folder (or however long your CPA or attorney suggest you keep each document).
If the document contains an account number or contact information you need to keep, start a master list. On this list, you can keep track of every account, as well as the tasks you need to complete for that account. For example: USAA bank checking account: (1) send death certificate to bank, (2) transfer money to my USAA checking account (3) close account. Once you write it on the master list, you can then file the paperwork in the proper folder or add the paper to the shred box. If you’d like to have back-ups, I recommend writing one list on your computer, and encrypting with a password, and the second on a pad of paper that you keep with you.
Category 5: Shred
These are documents that contain personal information such as Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, passwords, etc. Label a bankers box with “shred” and place all these documents in here. It’s possible this will be your second largest pile of paperwork, depending on how far back documents and files were archived. Again, double check with your CPA and attorney to see which documents you need to keep.
Realize there is no time limit on when this has to be done. It’s possible you are giving yourself one, whether you feel it should be done by a certain date or if there is a legitimate reason, but don’t feel pressured to finish. The last thing you want is to be in “purge mode” and you get rid of something that later brings you regret.
My only word of caution: try not to just box up everything and hide it away in a closet or storage unit. If you absolutely cannot deal with it now, at least do some organizing before you box it away. If you know what’s in a box, you’ll be more likely to open that box in the future. So, label the boxes with photos, financials, personal letters, work, contracts, house, etc. This way, you may one day soon (rather than much later) open the closet door, see 20 labeled boxes and rather than feeling overwhelmed, you’ll tell yourself, you’ll just deal with the financials today and take down that one box. It’ll also prove easier to deal with any issues that arise, because you’ll hopefully be able to go directly to the box that may hold some answers.
Putting a hand on every single document from someone’s life takes time. It’s a daunting task just by itself. Add in the emotional aspect and it becomes a mountain of a task. Start the project realizing it will take a while and don’t hesitate to ask a friend or professional to help guide you through the mountain of paperwork.