How to Climb a Mountain

How to Climb a Mountain

(when you want to sit and cry)
Guidelines for dealing with the business of a loved one's death.

by Ann Peachman

So this is what executor means. I guess I signed up for this.

When my husband died after an intense year of illness, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. During that year, I had taken on new responsibilities at work, assisted with my daughter’s wedding, seen the birth of my first grandchild, and made endless painful decisions regarding my husband’s declining health.

When the kind people at the funeral home handed me a two-page, single-spaced list of tasks I needed to accomplish in the next few weeks, my eyes glazed over. At a time when I felt vulnerable, distracted, and unable to cope, I was expected to climb a formidable mountain of paperwork. There were phone calls to make, letters to compose, faxes to send, and then more phone calls. Some didn’t receive replies, or the replies needed follow up, and then I had to start again.

All I wanted to do was sit and stare at the wall.

In the months that followed, I did climb this mountain. File by file, I completed the many assignments involved when a life has ended. Along the way, I learned some lessons that may be valuable to you, should you have to make this climb some day.

Get help

Friends are often at a loss and desperately want to do something to ease your pain. Given the chance to accomplish something practical, most would be thrilled. One friend went with me to the bank that first day. I did all the talking, but her presence and support made me feel stronger. Another friend sat with me for two days as we worked through “the list.” She made calls when my courage dried up and encouraged me to keep at it. Each success was celebrated with a flourish of crossing it off the list. We shared cups of tea and memories as well, and I went away feeling encouraged that great progress had been made.

It never occurred to me to ask my adult children for help. As executor, I felt that the responsibility lay with me. A year later I was stunned to hear one of my children say it would have helped with closure to participate. I would have been thrilled to have someone make phone calls for me! Make a list of those who might reasonably help you. Include family, close friends, spiritual and professional contacts. It is difficult to ask, but you will be pleasantly surprised at the support you get.

Sometimes help comes in unexpected forms. The daughter of a friend offered to drive to the next city to get something for me. I would never have asked for her help (I hardly knew her), but when she heard of my need, she was eager to go for me. Allow your church family to reach out to you. People often bring food because that’s all they can think of (and believe me, food is a blessing!), but many would be happy to assist you in other ways.

Get organized

I am an organized person by nature. My job involves keeping minutiae of details in order, and I’m good at it. But after my husband’s death, I lived in distraction. I replaced three cell phones in a year (I washed one of them). I lost things, panicked, and then found them in the place where they belonged. Organization is an overwhelming challenge when you are dealing with grief.

You will need

  • a box of file folders
  • a box of hanging files
  • some kind of file box, even if it’s cardboard
  • a stapler and staples
  • paper clips
  • file labels
  • a black marker
  • a place to lay things out (My dining room table became my “command post,” but a small table set up in the basement or the corner of a bedroom will do.)

Create a labelled file folder for each company or government agency to be contacted. I paper clipped together correspondence concerning the same topic and stapled it when the transactions were complete. It may take months for something to be finished, but you can easily see the progress of what has been done by looking through each file folder.

Copy everything you send out, all correspondence, and each insurance check you deposit. You need records of all you have done so you can see when follow-up is needed. Without these files, it is easy to lose track of situations that aren’t immediately resolved. When a file is complete, put it in a hanging file in your file drawer. It is encouraging to see completed files! There were days when that file drawer was the most positive area of my life.

Get finished

It is easy to procrastinate. I hate making phone calls at the best of times, so for me, phone calls to insurance companies and government agencies rank right up there with root canals.

However, these tasks wouldn’t go away unless I dealt with them, and the burden only got greater if I put it off. I would tell myself, You only have to do two hard tasks today. Then I would quickly make the phone calls or whatever else needed to be done. What a sense of freedom I felt when I finished and gave myself permission not to think about it until the next day.

Climbing partner

This mountain isn’t a smooth or easy climb. Sometimes I had to call the same company several times, or my faxes didn’t get replies. My emotions were unpredictable and sometimes embarrassing. Once I burst into tears over the phone with the lady at the tax office.

Some days I wondered if I’d ever finish the climb. I thought about Jesus’ words: “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30, NIV). This didn’t feel easy or light, but the key was to be in the yoke with Jesus. As in other expeditions in life, I needed to invite Him to be a part of every process. Through every difficulty, Jesus invites me to learn from Him as we climb together.

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