Missed conversations before death

25 May 2021

Anne Wadey of the National Bereavement Service shares her story of regretting the conversations her family didn’t have before her parents died and discusses other common disputes which cause problems for bereaved people.

More than 30 years ago, I was headed to a remote African hospital, mainly accessed by non-local people by single-engine aircraft to a grass strip cut from rainforest. It is now hard to imagine a time before even satellite phones but our sole means of communication with the ‘outside world’ was by a timed appointment on short-wave radio that was solar powered and could not be used in a thunderstorm. Not long before leaving, my father told me, on the phone, where he would like his ashes scattered, near the first home my parents shared when first married. He was very ill and we knew we might not see each other again. He asked if I knew what my mother wanted for her ashes. I had reached the decision that a lifetime of being the go-between had to stop so I replied that he should ask her himself.

The news reached me that he had entered the hospice a week after the event and fortuitously a flight was scheduled a week later so I could come home. In fact he had died on the day that first news reached me though I knew only the day before I travelled that he had died and I would arrive in the UK on the morning of his funeral, timed so I could get there from the airport. Reaching home, I asked about his ashes, to be told they would be scattered in the crematorium garden. Fatigued from a 24 hour journey and somewhat dreading the funeral, it did not seem an appropriate moment to reveal what he had said to me, as his reason was that it was where my parents had been happiest. I carried the grief and guilt of that secret knowledge for years and visited the rose garden he had mentioned, symbolically scooped a handful of soil and trickled it down again. It took rather longer for me to realise how unfair it had been of him to burden me with that request and for me to feel and process the anger.

Last year my mother’s body caught up with the deterioration of her brain and between lockdowns we were able to have a small and appropriate funeral. She had often stated she didn’t care what we did with her (her Will just stated cremation) though she was adamant she did not want a cardboard coffin. However, when I had asked about her ashes, she named the same rose garden location. At the time I appreciated the irony. Knowing the story, my sister and I arranged that her ashes would be scattered in the same location as my father’s over 30 years before. It was not my purpose of me relating my personal story, but in writing I have realised that there was a time when their marriage was happy, before his dedication to his work ruptured their affection and she became trapped by domesticity and motherhood, neither of which were her natural gifting.

This is just a small example of the many types of situation we hear from clients of the National Bereavement Service, when we wish that there had been a conversation before the event of the death. So often too, relationships that had fractured in life continue to cause anguish and disruption after a death.

Failure to write a Will, especially if one has a partner in a relationship not formalised by marriage or civil partnership is one of the worst scenarios. Unless assets such as bank accounts and a property are jointly owned, the rules of intestacy which govern inheritance in the absence of a Will leave the partner with nothing. If there are absolutely no blood relations of any kind, the estate goes to the Crown, unless the partner can prove financial dependence on the deceased person in court.

Grief may occasionally bring reconciliation, but in my experience its intensity means the people affected have no spare capacity for dealing with anything but their current distress and existing antagonistic attitudes may become even more entrenched. It is difficult to focus on the purpose of a funeral if one is also on tenterhooks wondering if ‘they’ will come. Many funeral directors can tell stories of physical fights during the main ceremony, even before everyone has reached the bar for the wake.

I have known a flash of intense anger while at a paternal uncle’s house after the funeral of another uncle. He read the Will, which stated that books and paintings were bequeathed to my mother. My family knew the provenance of the paintings and had expressed appreciation of them. The uncle hosting us then said he had  asked the surviving siblings if they wanted any of the pictures. I was incensed and left the room on the pretext of helping my aunt in the kitchen. In fact, no-one else wanted the pictures, my mother had them reframed and they hung on her wall for years. I still have them though not currently displayed as they are worth far more than the paltry few pounds they would raise in a sale room.

If I could feel so angry over watercolours with no commercial value, how much more understandable that people are enraged when jewellery, significant items of furniture and wealth are distributed in a manner that appears to them to be unjust. How the law requires an estate to be distributed may even contravene what a person has communicated orally but then failed to transform into a legally valid document.

Discovering the person who has died had major debts is another difficult situation in which the bereaved person needs careful advice to avoid becoming liable for debt that is not theirs. Debts dying with the debtor is a myth and some creditors use questionable tactics to pressurise bereaved families into paying what they do not personally owe.

At National Bereavement Service it is our privilege to provide information and advice on these and many other questions and concerns of bereaved people, together with providing immediate support and signposting to longer-term sources of emotional care.

Anne Wadey has worked with bereaved people for over 30 years in a variety of contexts. She is Senior Bereavement Advisor with the National Bereavement Service.