The Journey of Losing Someone You Love
Our approach to managing death has seen little change over the last several decades, yet our attitudes towards it are evolving. Managing a death, whether expected or not, is a complex, chaotic, emotionally draining, financially stressful, and years long experience. Death is a complicated matter. Many people avoid the topic and delay planning or preparing for it until it happens. It often takes a significant life event like the birth of a child, a health scare, marriage, or loss to prompt a serious conversation about death and dying.
I started exploring this topic when I was interviewing women about their experiences with menopause. Many had lost a parent or were caring for ageing parents who were at the end of their lives. Their stories of loss revealed common patterns and painful challenges. In this post, I examine the journey of managing the death of a loved one, based on in-depth expert interviews and my research into the bereavement industry.
OUR VIEWS OF DEATH ARE CHANGING
The customary approach to honoring the dead involves a burial or cremation ceremony and fulfilling the deceased's last will and testament. There are several key actors who are involved in managing a death including the funeral director, coroner, spiritual leaders, healthcare professionals, lawyers, law enforcement, and family and friends. This process evokes images of a funeral home, reams of paperwork, and witnessing a casket being reverently lowered into the ground.
The bereavement experience has been augmented by technology and new ways of thinking about death. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital wills, end-of-life planning tools, virtual memorials, live-streamed funerals, on-demand cremation services, and other advancements, introducing opportunities to manage death in a modernized and accessible manner. Consumers are increasingly seeking secular, cost-conscious, sustainable, and less traditional approaches to managing death such as:
Green or environmentally friendly approaches to burial and cremation
Memorials that are personalized, artistic, and/or return the remains to nature
Celebration of life ceremonies that take place outside a funeral home
Direct funerals where the body is buried quickly, without a wake or embalming
Death doulas and celebrants
Low-cost digital services and products
In addition to technological advancements, death cafes, online death communities, and policy changes are facilitating an increasingly mainstream conversation around death. The growing acceptance of medical assistance in dying (MAiD) in countries such as Germany, Italy, Austria, the US, Australia, and Canada is empowering individuals to take greater control over their own mortality. For example, Canada recently expanded access to MAiD for individuals living with mental illness in 2021.
UNDERSTANDING HOW WE MANAGE DEATH
In 2019 I interviewed startup founders in the funeral/bereavement industry; bereavement professionals (e.g., funeral directors); and people who had lost their loved ones, expectedly and unexpectedly, and played a key role in managing their loved one's estate, often as the executor. I also conducted my own desk research into the end-of-life experience and gained insight by participating in death cafes and events.
Several themes emerged from these conversations:
The journey begins at the moment of death
Death is a taboo topic. As a result, the planning and organizing around a death usually starts once a person has passed. Survivors are left with the daunting task of piecing together the affairs and final wishes of the deceased, but they often don't know where to start or what to do. At the same time, the last wishes and guidance from the deceased may not be clear or available at all. This process becomes an exhaustive search for the right people and information, filled with assumptions and a multitude of tasks that need to be completed.
It moves quickly at first, then becomes painstakingly slow
The days following a death are a blur. Emotionally, this is a vulnerable moment filled with uncertainty, grief, and confusion. At the same time, these emotions are dampened by the need to move quickly and tactically to plan the funeral and care for urgent matters. The experience can feel highly transactional, with dozens of decisions and purchases being made over the span of days. Following the flurry of the funeral, the emotional impact of the loss becomes more pronounced. The focus shifts to settling the estate and facing the realities of the situation.
Executorship is both a labor of love and a heavy burden
The executor role is viewed as a responsibility and a labor of love. At the same time, it involves a tremendous amount of mental and emotional work. Untangling a lifetime of assets, finances, and personal artefacts takes months and years, especially when circumstances are unexpected or complex. This involves navigating a myriad of people and legal issues. In some cases, executors may need to travel or take time away from their jobs to fulfill their duties.
Executors learn to be tactful politicians
Following a death, numerous stakeholders with competing interests emerge. There are family members, friends, and acquaintances who want, need, or demand to be involved, and actively lobby for their interests. There are also institutions and companies that must be contacted to settle the deceased's affairs. Of course, there are also some surprises. This creates a complex political landscape for the executor to navigate. They often feel torn between serving the interests of the deceased and themselves (emotionally, physically, etc.).
Conflicts over inheritance strain and sever relationships
Settling an estate is a complicated and revealing process. With money and assets at stake, the true emotions, entitlements, and self-interests of those involved are laid bare. For next of kin, the death represents one of the few moments in their lives where they may receive a significant and potentially life-changing inheritance. This leads to considerable conflict and discord. The process tests and even destroys close relationships.
The experience of managing a death is motivation to get one's own affairs in order
The experience of managing a death firsthand often becomes a catalyst for individuals to proactively plan for their own end-of-life affairs. Many executors are driven by a desire to spare their loved ones from the frustration, confusion, and chaos they themselves encountered in the process.
The journey of managing a death is a multifaceted process that starts immediately after the person's passing, with the initial focus on planning the funeral and attending to urgent matters. After the funeral, the attention shifts to the comprehensive management of the deceased's affairs - this may be straightforward or complicated depending on the circumstances.
There are six stages of the journey:
Support a loved one with end-of-life planning. This is a less common stage, however, advance planning is often prompted by a major life event.
Confirm the death. It must be pronounced by a medical professional or a coroner.
Coordinate the pressing affairs of the deceased, immediately after the death. This includes notifying important people of the death, arranging for care of dependents and pets, registering the death, transferring the body to the correct institution, and identifying the executor/administrator of the estate.
Plan the funeral or memorial.
Execute and administer the will, and determine how to distribute the estate amongst the living.
Complete final tasks and close the affairs of the deceased.
Below is a visual representation of the journey. The process may be non-linear in reality.
Managing the aftermath of a death is a complex endeavor, involving not only the emotional anguish of losing a loved one but also the burdensome and impersonal tasks, processes, and decisions that ensue. The effects of a death on the living can be profound and enduring, and there is no right approach to navigating the aftermath of a loss.
Thank you to those who graciously took the time to share their insights and stories of loss with me.
Illustrations in this post were created using MidJourney.com
Tags: Death, Dying, Customer discovery, Design research, End-of-life, Bereavement, Funeral, Estate planning, Journey Mapping, Experience Map