Handling Death


We must think about death, at least eventually.

We grieve loss through five predictable emotional stages.

Be gracious when you know people who have died, since others may be grieving much more than you.

If someone close to you or a family member is dying, give yourself grace.

If it’s an older family member or spouse, discuss the inheritance.

Deaths take a bit of logistical work, which is complicated from the emotional nature of it.

Stay within the boundaries of the will, which is often much easier said than done.

Finally, confront your own death graciously and efficiently.

Why think about death?

Death is the inevitable reality for when one of our body parts breaks down without a suitable replacement.

Most of the time, we can go about life without thinking of death.

However, as we grow older, we encounter it much more often.

In many ways, death itself is a bit overrated:
  • Most people are more afraid of the uncertainty of how we die than what comes after.
  • But, beyond the complete uncertainty, death itself is a relatively simple situation:
    1. Fading from consciousness as one of your primary organs fails.
    2. Either a quick blink into consciousness as your soul experiences whatever is after this life, or complete nothingness if we don’t have souls.
  • However, any guesses about what will happen after we die are so uncertain that anything else is speculation without believing a religion.

The best thing to do is find a religion that conforms closest to the truth, stick with it, and stop thinking about it:
  • Of course, the quest for truth might lead to an existential crisis proportional to your intelligence, so be prepared for that.
  • In some ways, the easiest solution is to believe agnosticism or atheism, but neither of them give any legitimate hope.

How we grieve

We always grieve losses through five specific stages.

A. Denial & Isolation:
  • Denial gives us a barrier against the sudden shock to let our minds ease into the truth.
  • Most people rationalize or invalidate overwhelming feelings.
  • Denial is a temporary response that carries through the first wave of pain.

B. Anger:
  • As the effects of denial and isolation wear down, we’re still not ready.
  • We express our unpreparedness through frustration at objects, strangers, friends or family.
  • This anger comes from a misplaced need for justice on our terms.

C. Bargaining:
  • Proportionally to our natural ambition, our feelings of helplessness and vulnerability provoke us to try regaining control.
  • We usually bargain with what we can do now, then move to impossible promises, regrets, and pondering hypothetical possibilities.
  • In the bargaining stage, people often try to make a deal with God or another higher power.

D. Depression, which comes in two forms:
  1. Making quiet preparations to separate from someone and bid them farewell.
    • Most of the time, we’re slowly accepting awareness of the entire situation.
  2. Reacting to practical implications that come from to the loss.
    • Sadness and regret are usually driving the reaction.
    • These implications vary exclusively to the experience (e.g., burial costs, a social void, debt, etc.)

E. Acceptance:
  • Not everyone reaches acceptance, and reaching it is a blessing in itself.
  • The most clear signs of acceptance are withdrawal and an overall calm.
  • Acceptance is not a period of happiness; it’s a resting state for the feelings to run their course.

At any point, we can regress back to any of the stages, but will have to progress through them in order again.

People you know (but aren’t close to) dying

Most of the time, witnessing a death is a painful reminder of our mortality:
  • We all live for a relatively short time, and the reality and suddenness of death can be severely painful.
  • The worst part is that, contrary to stories we consume, most deaths have no context to create meaning and come without any clear warning.
  • For this reason, we can be devastated even when a pet or celebrity dies after a very long life.

Generally, the death of almost anyone excluding evil dictators is considered a loss for humanity, so avoid jokes that make light of that person.

Even if you’re fully convinced of what happens after this life, respect others’ sensitivities.

If you know someone who was close to the deceased, offer to help with the funeral or if they need to talk:
  • Don’t impose yourself, since everyone grieves in their own way.
  • Give them more grace than normal, since they’ll be behaving erratically during the grieving process.

Keep checking up on them and be available, especially during the depression stage:
  • At the depression stage, everyone can benefit from simple clarification, reassurance, helpful cooperation, and a few kind words.
  • People in quiet depression often only need a hug.

A loved one dying or near death

Record and cherish your times with them:
  • Make video and audio recordings of them, and interview them about their life experiences.
  • Let the feelings flow freely, but don’t let those feelings control your decisions.

When your close friend or family member has died, it’s impossible to describe in words:
  • The support of your closest friends will be your greatest consolation.
  • That person is now experiencing whatever comes after this life, and there’s a void shaped like that person still in your life.
  • If it’s worth your time, write a book about their life.

Give yourself as much time as necessary to grieve:
  • Clear your calendar of everything you planned to do that isn’t urgent.
  • Postpone every important decision for as long as you can.
  • If it’s the death of someone younger than you (e.g., your child, niece/nephew), it will be particularly difficult.
  • However, for some people, grief isn’t really that difficult, so don’t feel shame if you only grieved for a small time.

When someone dies, everyone around you will constantly re-remind you:
  • Their efforts are well-intended, so don’t hold it against them.
  • If it’s too overwhelming, seclude and isolate yourself as much as possible to give yourself time to grieve.

The sorrow will pass, and you’ll be able to return to normal once you’ve worked through the experience and created new habits without them:
  • There is a possibility you may continue have prolonged grieving (Prolonged Grief Disorder, or PGD), which, like PTSD, has addictive properties.
  • However, your ability to direct your thoughts to other matters will slowly erode the severity of your memories, even while it may be difficult to keep going.

Managing a death

When an older family member or spouse is growing older or close to death, boldly and calmly bring up the inheritance:
  • Clarify desires and expectations.
  • Give input for when they decide to make their will.
  • If they’re interested, minimize taxation through gifts given in advance of death.
  • Be prepared to navigate family politics with any relations who have shown patterns of selfishness.

As much as possible, get certain information from that person while they’re still alive:
  • Who the executor of the will is.
  • A copy of the will, if at all humanly possible.
  • Any specific requirements they have for their funeral.

Make funeral decisions before consulting a mortician:
  • Funerals, like weddings, make a substantial profit by exploiting an emotional state.
    • A funeral is for the bereaved, not the victim.
  • Casket features and decorations are expensive addons that don’t contribute to the experience.
  • Embalming may somewhat delay decomposition, but refrigeration is just as effective for an open-casket funeral.

Unless you have a religious belief about it, a corpse is decaying hazardous material that doesn’t need anything but a container:
  • The person who used the body is now gone, so it’s your job to legally let nature run its course.
  • A few hundred years ago, people would set the body in a chair as if it were sitting to let loved ones travel to personally talk to the corpse before burial.
  • Whether it’s cremation, burial, scattering ashes or an urn, the final resting place of someone is for everyone else’s closure, which will be different depending on the religion.

Get at least 10-15 death certificates for all interested parties:
  • Banks
  • Financial institutions
  • Previous employers where a retirement account may be
  • Credit card companies
  • Lenders
  • Insurance providers
  • Social security office
  • Anywhere else that sends monthly or yearly statements

It’s not uncommon for something to end up in probate:
  • First, get an attorney to publicize your passing in a newspaper or post publication at the county courthouse to allow anyone to make a claim on your property.
  • Then, get an attorney to open an estate account at a bank to put the probate assets into it.
  • From there, you’ll have a legal dispute with the government about your assets.

Managing a will

Keep in mind that the absolute worst nature of people will come out after someone has died and lots of money is at stake:
  • Often, wills aren’t always clear about who gets what, and family members will become severely vicious if they see an opportunity to gain from it.
  • Adhere as much as possible to the stated will, and don’t get distracted by anyone’s manipulation tactics.
  • If you’ve been unfairly treated, you can’t control what the deceased had done, so release it and move on.

Discuss with the executor of their estate to learn the provisions of their will:
  • The executor is usually stipulated in the will, which is why a copy is so critical to alleviate conflicts later.
  • The beneficiaries can be anyone or anything, and often shows the true intent of the deceased, which is often distressing.
  • If you are the executor, you’re fulfilling a legal obligation to the departed, so don’t let your bias adapt the will to your preferences.

Review the wills/trusts and set terms in each document:
  • Give them to your legal or financial counsel for advice.
  • Stay organized by separating each account type and asset.
  • Be very clear about who is the trustee, who the beneficiaries are, the primary estate recipient, and indicate all remaindermen (people who get part of the estate).

Their assets aren’t typically a straightforward monetary value:
  • Life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and annuities usually pass directly to the beneficiaries.
  • Their unpaid debts might become yours.
  • If the will doesn’t cover any of the assets, they may be subject to probate.

After the initial work, plan for the future:
  • Review their retirement investments and assets you’ve acquired as well as any unpaid funeral expenses.
  • Review your budget and make new goals.

Your own death

The most infuriating probate issues come from when the deceased had verbally promised a beneficiary something, but didn’t write it down clearly.

To avoid anything going into probate, have a few documents finalized and available to your next of kin:
  1. Last will and testament – a document indicating who receives your personal belongings.
  2. Healthcare power of attorney, living will – for an event where you can’t speak for yourself about your personal healthcare decisions.
  3. Durable power of attorney – for an event where you can’t speak for yourself about legal decisions.
  4. Funeral planning declaration – indicate your exact wishes regarding disposing of your body and funeral services.
  5. All bank accounts must have direct beneficiaries.
    • All they’ll need to do is take their identification and death certificate to the bank to transfer the accounts.
  6. If you own a home, a Transfer on Death (TOD) deed.
    • All they’ll need to do is take their identification and death certificate to the county building to sign the deed over.
  7. If the beneficiary will be too young, set up a trust, and appoint a trustee.
  8. Talk with everyone whom you have designated, as well as explain to anyone close to you why they were not designated.

Draft the documents with an attorney, and keep it current as your situation changes:
  • You don’t necessarily need a lawyer to make a good will, but use language that makes it entirely certain to anyone reading exactly who should get your possessions and what should happen, along with what should happen in the possibility that those things can’t happen.
  • Clarify likely circumstances you can think of as well, such as divorce or having children.
  • Preferably, you should leave enough for your children they can do anything they want, but not enough that they can do nothing.

If you’re nearing death, don’t worry too much about those around you:
  • Your loved ones, while well-meaning, will make the experience more difficult through their projected fears and anxieties.
  • You don’t have to “be strong” for them, since you’re suffering a more uncertain time than they are.

Keep all your paperwork organized for the people who will have to sift through it after you’re gone:
  • All your computer passwords, or how to access them.
  • All relevant banks (with account numbers) and insurance information (especially life insurance).
  • Any important tasks they may need to do (e.g., canceling subscriptions, credit cards, utility accounts) with clear instructions about how and when they’re paid.
  • Important documents (marriage license, auto titles, etc.) or where they’re located.
  • Your will, living trust, and power of attorney (preferably all written by an estate attorney).
  • Any notes or messages for your loved ones.

Make sure to consider and communicate situations where you’re incapacitated or missing, but not necessarily dead.

It’s a blessing if your last days and weeks are relaxing:
  • Since death is always premature, you’re the only one with any power to bring your life to a pleasant close.
  • As you age, it’s becomes increasingly crucial to find answers to the greatest uncertainties.
  • Make sure all your possessions and money have either been transferred to someone else, or have been clearly communicated in writing somehow.
  • Let your friends and family prematurely grieve.
  • Enjoy the time you have, especially with those you love.

Don’t obsess too much about opportunities you’ve missed: