Productivity and Organization skills are something I work on every day, trying to improve my ability to get the most done in the time allotted and keep my focus on the important things.  But sometimes life throws you a curve, and when it does the true test becomes whether those skills completely desert you in time of need.  I got to find out last week what would happen.

My mother (72) died a couple of weeks ago.  My father had died years before, and although I have a brother he is not dependable (and far more sentimental than I am), as well as broke and unable to fly to where my mother was living.  I am also her executor.  So the task of making all the arrangements, meeting with the lawyer, dealing with all of her possessions, etc., fell to me.

My husband and I flew across country to where she had been living.  He spent 5 and I spent 7 days there (work commitments) organizing what we could and preparing her house to go on the market.  It was a miserable week, emotionally, physically and in some ways organizationally.

You see I work best when I have a plan.  The plan doesn’t have to be perfect, but it makes me anxious when I don’t have one.  It took several days to get a plan together for dealing with everything I had to be physically THERE for, and frankly it took suggestions from an local to that area to finally put a workable plan together.  Once I had that, we cleared and cleaned the house, packaged up things to ship, set aside things for my step-siblings and got everything in the house that needed to be done completed in 2.5 days. 

I came home with a list of things that my husband and I would be doing going forward:

  • We need to do our wills; we’ve been lazy so far, but they need to be done.  No one should have to be making decisions about how gets what or (worse) what funeral arrangements need to be made when they are so upset.
  • LESS PAPER – my mother had papers everywhere; no organization, no logic.  We are moving mostly paperless and all not-yet-scanned papers will be organized in ONE place.  On a quarterly basis everything will be scanned and shredded so that the pile-up is minimal.
  • Less stuff in general; we filled up the charity services truck that came, and that didn’t include much furniture (which stayed to stage the house).  We have far too much.
  • Pictures need to get onto digital media – Most of our pictures are stored digitally (not all though) but I shipped back nearly 50 pounds of pictures, albums, slide carousels and other family images.  We are going to take those to a local service that will scan them all so that the only pictures that are physically around are those being displayed.  The rest can be reprinted as need be.  It’s the only way to ensure that they survive.

If you are ever in this position or think you might be, I would make a few suggestions to think about now, before it happens.

  1. Talk to your loved one about their wishes.  Funeral homes TRY to make things easy, but there are still a lot of choices and the less thinking the better.  Its easy to get caught up in emotional loops when actually faced with the situation.  Same goes for money, property, pets, etc.
  2. Make sure you know what they want to happen to pets and other such dependents.  This was one of our biggest challenges, since my mother had specific wishes she wanted followed but by knowing what they were we were able to find a satisfactory solution.
  3. If you are executor, ask that your name be placed on things like safe deposit boxes so that you can immediately gain access to key documents.  If your name and signature are not on there you will have to wait for the courts, and that means it could take weeks or months to get to those documents.  If that is where the will is stored, this can turn in to an awful catch-22.
  4. Make sure you have a copy of key documents such as wills.  This can document many decisions made in advance and gives the lawyer and courts somewhere to start.
  5. Use a lawyer, even if you have to pay for it from your own money.  You can assign them power of attorney to do things like sell property or vehicles, making that one less thing you have to worry about.  This is DOUBLY important if you are far away.
  6. If you are not local, recruit someone who is to advise you on vendors; cleaning services, charities, carpet replacement, and garbage pick-up all are easier to coordinate if you know the rules and someone who lives locally generally does.

This process was very hard, but the combination of having done the things above made it easier than it might otherwise have been.  I knew my mother’s wishes, my name was on her box, the will was available and is with a lawyer, who is dealing with many of the administrative details, and my mother’s best friend helped us navigate the strange town and get the work done.

Finally, there is no way in the world NOT to drop everything else when this happens.  I haven’t looked at my PhD work in 2 weeks, I had to find a substitute to teach for me and when I got back I was disorganized and scatterbrained.  My first day back at my regular job was far less productive than usual because my concentration was suffering.  This is all OK and expected.  As this week has proceeded I have improved and while I am not back to full productivity I am starting to make progress.  Cut yourself some slack and focus on organizing the things that are critical; the rest can wait.