In January, father of four Steve Dempsey lost his wife to cancer. In his new weekly column, he writes about life after saying goodbye
When my wife was dying, I lost all track of time. Was that a day? A week? A month? Who knows! All the normal events that break our days and weeks into meaningful chunks lost their stickiness. After Kate died, time refused to return to its normal rhythm for a while, passing instead in fits and starts.
It was strange. And made even stranger by the administrative tasks surrounding death. One of them was organising the funeral — but I’ll come back to that some other time.
Most of them were the most boring form of admin. It’s a bit of a haze now, but I spent around a month on the phone, online and bringing bits of paper to different offices, where they would be copied and sent to ‘head office’ before condolences were offered and I went on my way. It was time-consuming and extremely dull.
Now I’m allergic to red tape at the best of times, but this felt like someone had designed a Kafkaesque obstacle course of state bodies, banks and insurance agencies to test the reserves and resolve of grieving people. Admittedly, the situation was complicated by our haphazard approach to our finances.
Kate and I didn’t have a joint account. Instead, we had an undocumented system that had organically grown over time: the mortgage went out of Kate’s account — she also handled property tax, car tax, insurance and tolls. The gas, electricity, Netflix, Spotify, bins and everything else came out of my accounts. We each minded our own business, with little discussion. Even months later, I’m wondering what payments Kate was responsible for that I have forgotten.
Anyway, before you can enter the Kafkaesque maze, you need a death certificate. To get one of these, I learned, you need to go to a civil registration office with a death notification form. I know I got one of these from the hospice where Kate died, but I have no recollection of getting it or what it looked like. The only civil registration office that was quickly registering deaths was in Navan. So off to Meath I went.
On the outskirts of the town in a half-deserted building, utterly devoid of helpful signage, I wandered around looking for where I could trade my death notification form for a death certificate. Honestly, it was like that bit in This is Spinal Tap where the band wander around the bowels of a stadium trying to find the stage. Eventually, I found a waiting room and bought two death certificates — one of which I lost almost immediately.
But one was enough. The banks all took copies of the death certificate and the wheels were in motion. There were mishaps though. When Kate’s bank understood she was dead, they gave me access to her accounts but put a blocker on all payments without telling me. It was a while before I realised her subscriptions and direct debits — like the mortgage — weren’t getting paid. Another time, when I was physically inside a bank, one eagle-eyed employee spotted that my current signature — an ineligible scrawl — was different from the one they had on file for me. This resulted in a comic scene; I had to forge my old signature before they would update it.
Strangest of all, when I went to change the car insurance, it turned out that Kate had removed me as a named driver in 2016. I have no memory of her doing this and no notion of why she did it. It actually cost her money. The nice customer service woman I talked to told me it was cheaper and easier to leave me on. And yet I was off. That’s six years I’d been driving without insurance.
Aside from banks and insurance agencies, there was a list of things to be sorted with social welfare and revenue. I’ve completed most of the admin obstacle course but there’s a stack of paperwork I haven’t got around to. And only this week, I got a letter from a hospital looking for payment for some scans Kate got before she died. It had an ominous tone. I suspect they’ve been sending emails to a dead person’s email address for some time. For the most part, the people you deal with when handling this sort of admin are very understanding. The banks and insurance agencies all have good teams to deal with death — if you can find them.
When you’re punch drunk from grief, busy handling the emotional needs of four children and time has lost all meaning, you just don’t have the time or mental bandwidth for this sort of work. You need a printer, a photocopier, a car and a lot of free time to navigate the post-death red tape.
And you need to be organised. I’m not, but Kate was: she had marriage certificates, birth certificates and bank details all filed away in folders clearly labelled ‘Important Documents’ and ‘House Stuff’. It was help from beyond the grave. And I needed all the help I could get in that time when time moved like molasses.
I’d love to know what was going on with the car insurance, though.
To support the high-quality palliative care services provided by St Francis Hospice, Raheny and Blanchardstown check out: sfh.ie/donate