Living in your home after a death

January 13 | Guest post by Helen the Snowy Owl
bedroom © by wolfgangfoto, used under Creative Commons license.
Nine months ago I was sitting at this very laptop, surrounded by every other laptop we had in the flat (all of which were logged into different Facebook accounts), plus address books, and lists of names, and my mobile phone had never seen so much use in its life.

My fiancé had passed away early that morning and we'd just finished letting everyone know.

One of the many side effects of his chronic illness and the drugs used to treat it was high blood pressure. I'd left for church on a beautiful Sunday morning in spring, leaving him curled up happily in bed. I'd returned to find him collapsed on the floor, unconscious and barely breathing following a brain hemorrhage. At 4.15 am on the following Tuesday morning, his life support was switched off.

I didn't think of myself as being much of a "things" person. After his passing, I still have the memories of our time together and the rings, and I thought that'd do me. Quite a bit of the stuff in the flat was his grandma's and there was a lot of stuff I was going to encourage him to either get rid of or replace although I expected this to take three or four years to sort properly.

Since he passed away, I've been on a somewhat accelerated house clearance. I think I've asked the following questions of just about every major item in the flat so far, "Do I like it?" and, "Is it practical for what I need? If no, can I afford to replace it?" As it's turning out, I'm a lot more attached to stuff than I thought I was.

Here's what I've learned about carrying on living in a home — and revising my identity — after the death of my partner.

Making home work for you

Identify the area that makes you feel most uncomfortable and change it

My mother was slightly shocked when, during one of her checking-up-on-me calls, I said the biggest help she could be would be to drive me to a homeware store to get a new set of bedding. I needed it to be my bed, not our bed, but wasn't sure I trusted myself to both drive and shop in the same journey.

In the same vein, identify the bits that make your home your home and don't go changing them for a good while

You will need that consistency.

Take everything else really slowly

I'm an introvert; I need to go into hibernation with a book to hide from the world at the best of times. I needed insane amounts of downtime this summer. If you start a new project in the house or garden and you're anything like me, be warned that it may take you much longer than you thought to complete the project. I meant to weed my garden this summer. Mum and I completed about half of one small border between us one afternoon and I never managed the rest of it. Do not beat yourself up for being lazy when this happens!

Write a list of all the bills that are in either their name or joint names and set aside an afternoon or a day to go through and get them all updated

Again, this is that things-will-take-more-time-than-you-think thing! Some places will let you update the details over the phone, some will let you use email, and others will insist on a written letter. I found that there was no logic whatsoever with the different agencies as to their preferred method. Council tax? Phone call. Internet provider? Online portal. TV Licence? Letter.

My final tip is really something that should be sorted out long before the worst has a chance to happen. I moved into his flat. He had not made a will at that point. We were not yet married. Under English law, this meant that everything was due to go to his next of kin — his mum — and nothing whatsoever was due to come to me. As it is, his mum has been incredibly generous and has told the solicitor dealing with probate that she does not need the flat and that it should go straight to me.

If you are in the position where you would be homeless if anything happened to your long-term partner, work with them to sort this out. If you are the one whose name is everywhere, get it sorted! Whether it means adding names to the tenancy agreement or house deeds or writing a will or getting married/civil partnershipped/otherwise signing some appropriate paperwork, get something sorted out. I can tell you from experience that, living with the worry of homelessness on top of everything else that you're dealing with is a complete and utter pain!

Working with identity

I was a fiancée. We were planning to get married on 29th October 2011 at my local church. I'd made the cake, we'd sorted the budget, we'd chosen our clothes, the rings had been bought, save the date cards had been sent. My only stress was that, owing to my brother being in the Armed Forces, we'd had to rearrange the dates several times and, after briefly pulling the date forwards by four months, causing me to simplify every single idea that I'd had, I couldn't remember any of the more complicated things that I wanted to do in the way of decoration and stuff! All in all, everything was going pretty smoothly.

The next thing I knew, I was registering his death and, when asked for some reason what my marital status was, I realised that I was still "single, never married." Oh how that status hurt!

Because of the speed at which I had been planning the wedding (at one point before yet another call from my brother, we had something like 98 days to go), I'd never really had chance to sit and chat to my friends about plans for dresses and bouquets and guest lists and stuff. After he passed away, people obviously didn't want to mention wedding plans to me because it just sounded so wrong to be talking about things like that. I didn't realise until I met up with newly-married friends later in the summer that I actually needed to talk about my wedding plans!

One friend was still in completely blissed-out new-bride mode and blatantly didn't even think about whether it might be the best thing to be gushing about in front of me but, as it turned out, it was. I had never had chance to talk about the impossibility of inviting all the important parts of two very large social circles and balancing friends who are closer than most family with large numbers of cousins who always get invited to all the family events. It turned out to be a huge release for me in some ways.

My current issue revolves around motherhood. I had sort-of promised myself that I would not have kids after I turned 34. My mum was an older mum and I don't want to be one myself. When I was with my fiancé, his health issues were such that we weren't planning on having kids anyway. I'd be lying if I said that hadn't been a difficult thing to get my head around but I loved him and that was more than enough for me. I couldn't have coped with his occasionally-prolonged hospital stays if I'd have had a toddler to look after. The previous summer, I'd struggled with looking after the fish properly!

But now, where am I? I'm 30 years old and biological child-less — there's a semi-step-semi-adopted son in the mix there too but this isn't his story. It's going to be another couple of years hence before I've sorted myself out enough that I'm willing to even date again, let alone get married and have kids so, in all probability, I'm going to miss my self-imposed deadline.

When my fiancé was around, that didn't bother me. Now he's not, and many of my friends and colleagues have small children, and it sometimes hurts more than I want to be able to bear.

In all honesty, these thoughts and feelings have got easier over the past few months and I'm sure that they'll get easier still as time goes on. My main reason for writing them down is simply because a lot of the stuff I've read about grief and bereavement in the past nine months tends to cover either the loss of a person or the loss of a long-held role. The loss of a future role that you never thought you'd have anyway doesn't seem to be covered for some reason! I can't be the only one reading any of the Offbeat sites who is in a situation like this so I just wanted to say, "You're not alone, we'll get through this somehow."

If you are in this position, good luck with it all. They say that time is a great healer and it will be better one day, just not for a while yet.

  1. I'm sorry for your loss, and thank you for sharing your experiences here. You've had to face something that most women don't have to deal with until they're elderly. That's scary, but it seems like you've done an amazing job pulling your life back together. It's wonderful that his mother could be there for you, too. My father passed away when my mom was in her early 30's, and she's still close with his mother — and she's always loved my father, but she's has an amazing life since then anyway. You will too.

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  2. I am very sorry for your loss.

    I work in the life insurance industry at the moment, and that whole buying new bedsheets thing is something they generally figure in when calculating how much life insurance you should purchase.

    I'd just like to add, if you're living with someone, and you are financially interdependent, even if you're just roommates, life insurance is something that is definitely worth looking into. At least in the US, term policies can be very inexpensive, and you can list whoever you want as the beneficiary. You don't need to be married or anything.

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    • Same here. I'm so sorry for your loss sweetie. That's horrible. =(

      You're incredibly strong and I admire you for taking everything in stride. Thank you for writing this though, I'm sure it will help someone that may experience a loss.

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  3. This is possibly a post that I wouldn't ordinarily have read because it's not something of immediate relevance, but as I sit here at my desk with tears welling up I'm so glad I did.

    That in your grief you wanted to share some practical tips with others is incredible. I am so, so sorry for your loss.

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  4. My heart goes out to you. Thank you for this post – it's made me think of a lot of things people generally avoid thinking about, but need to be planned for.
    I am so sorry for your loss – I'll be keeping you in my thoughts today.

  5. I am so sorry for your loss! But thanks so much for posting about it. My husband and I were engaged for a year and a half. Three months before the wedding, after everything was planned and invitations were sent, we realized that the government program that was going to allow us to buy our house would disqualify us if we got married and my income was added to the mix. We would earn $1000 a year too much. So we decided to have a wedding anyway but not legally get married until after we got the house, and then we would inform the government and increase our mortgage payment amount, as is fair. We have just moved in and as I begin to repaint and make improvements, I keep having the thought that if something were to happen to my apparently not husband, I would have no claim to the house or the property. For all intents and purposes I've been a newlywed since August, and I paid for half of the house, yet in a moment I could lose everything. This post is heartbreaking, but makes a very practical point- I don't want to be homeless while mourning the death of the man I love. Thanks for motivating me to get that marriage certificate as quickly as possible!

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    • If getting married is not in your immediate future, I'd suggest you two do wills. You don't have to be legally married to declare someone as your beneficiary. You can still leave everything to each other, it's just even more important that you spell it out in a will.

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      • You may, however, have a higher inheritance tax burden if you're not married.

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      • Also think about setting each other up as PODs on your bank accounts. My fiancee and I have named each other PODs in case something happens, and I can tell you that if something DOES happen, I'll be glad to have done that.

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  6. As the fiance of a man who just this past year began to face life-threatening illness (of which,we seem to be on the good side of now) this hit close and was nothing I *wanted* to read but everything I *needed*. The thought of worst-case scenario is something we prefer to avoid but need to face to remain sane, humble, and gracious. Thank you for this.

    I am so sorry for your loss. My heart is with you.

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  7. Incredible post, and thank you for sharing it.
    My biggest encouragement in terms of your motherhood concerns would be to not worry about a number, but about how you feel. Self-imposed deadlines can be a great "goal-setter". But I hope you can consider opening yourself up to the possibility that being an older mother could be a beautiful life for YOU if you feel up to it when you get there. It's all about making the best decisions possible for yourself, and I know that's what you'll do. :) I'm sure that whatever happens, you're on the road to amazing things.

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  8. Thank you for your post. I may email it to the husband of my friend who died around Thanksgiving.
    I did want to let you know that I agree that grief for loss of possibility is generally unacknowledged and unrecognized in our culture. It's the kind of grief that women who experience infertility go through when they consider never having biological children, from what I understand. I think grief for loss of future role as a married partner is generally unrecognized because it's more often accompanied by a breakup, which gives a fiance(e) other processes for dealing with their grief.
    I know it doesn't help but I also set an age 34-deadline for myself (due to autism running in members of family who were born to mothers 35 and older) for biological children. I'm only 32 and for various reasons my partner and I are not interested in the various scientific methods for having biological children…but we are in the beginning stages of adoption (and planning to get married). :) So I want to let you know there are other ways to become a parent, and they don't have to fit neatly into the find-a-partner-date-a-few-years-get-engaged-get-married-have-biological-children box. (Something the offbeat sites are all about!)

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  9. I am so sorry for your loss.

    You seem to have a great head on you and I'm so glad you wrote this article.

    EVERYONE should talk about death without feeling like you're "jinxing it" or that you're being cold. Because the death of a spouse/significant other: 100% life change. Period. My husband and I have talked about what we predict we'd do soon after a death and it was really illuminating and made for an amazing conversation.

    We also have a fireproof/waterproof safe where we keep special information – like SS numbers, bank passwords, and insurance info. Again, one of those things you prepare for because you hope to never have to go down that path.

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  10. I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for posting this, I understand that this is completely different and doesn't compare, but my grandmother died today, and your post has almost made it easier to think about and cope with.
    You've encouraged a lot of people with this post, and I want to thank you very much for it.

  11. I am sorry for your loss and I thank you for sharing your story. The advice in this article is very good and important for us to consider.

  12. So sorry for your loss. I lost my mother almost 5 years ago and the day she died, my parent's house instantly felt empty. Even though I was there with my two sisters, my father, and my husband (then boyfriend) there was a part of it that was missing. It does take time to "move" on and get your life back to "normal". I remember when I had to start going through her personal things to decide what to keep, donate, or get rid of. It was SO HARD and some things just made me bawl, but after awhile it gets easier. You'll have times when you see something that makes you think of him or smell a familiar smell that smells like him. Those are wonderful reminders of the person that was. Wish you the best.

  13. My fiance and I have talked about this alot. We bought a home together this year, but due to another home he owns, only MY name is on this house. It was important to me to make sure his ownership is recognized so I had my lawyer draw up a simple will making him my sole beneficiary. Its a tricky place to be and unfortunately, after HE went through the death of his father last year and found out he had to fight for everything even though he was the only child, we realized how important it is to get EVERYTHING in writing. There is NO protection for boyfriends, girlfriends, live ins, etc…You have to protect yourself and each other until the big day come and its all finally legal…

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  14. I know exactly how you feel.
    I lost the man I know I was meant to marry almost 5 years ago. It was very sudden, he died a mere 2 weeks after a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer. What I can tell you for sure is that it does get better, slowly but surely.
    We did not live together, although his apartment always felt like it was both of ours. Only two weeks after his death his family and I cleared out his apartment. Watching our love nest torn apart bit by bit in the course of one terrible day was like watching him die all over again, and I wished I could just stay there forever.
    However, I have to say looking back now, in a way I was grateful for it. I took what I could, some furniture, the kitchen items we cooked together with, his cat sits purring on my lap at this very moment. But I think it was helpful that as the shock wore off and the grief set in to not be surrounded more than I already was with things soaked in memory and meaning. Over the years it has been easier to let go. But I gave myself permission to not do it sooner than I was really ready. Even as I began to date again I kept a box of our things under the bed.
    Be patient with yourself, that is the most important thing. Feeling like a widow without technically being one is a very strange place to be that few people understand. You will know when things are right, even if others don't get it.
    I found that just knowing that there were others out there like me, who understood, really helped as I began the process of healing. So, do know you are not alone and that it does get better, as ludicrous as it seems at the moment. The fact that you were able to post this and share shows you are on the right track.
    I am so so sorry. xo

  15. What a brave and amazing post this is. I was tearing up the whole time I read it.

    So sorry for your loss.

  16. A friend of mine passed away in July last year after a severe asthma attack and his fiance is now going through a very similar thing to you.
    Unfortunately his family is making things very difficult for her when it comes to things like life their appartment which was owned by him but they had shared it for almost 10 years and his superannuation (money that in Australia our employers have to deposit into an account for our retirement). His mother is now trying to claim it all for herself as he didn't have a will & they were not yet married. At a time that she should be allowed to grieve she is having to fight his mother for what he would have wanted his fiance to have.
    I am so sorry for your loss.

  17. I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm sure this post will be helpful to many who don't know what to do. Thank you for the foresight to conceptualize this post, and the bravery and strength to see it through.

  18. as everyone else has said previously, i too am so very sorry for your loss. i can't imagine the pain…

    but thank you so much for writing this post, though it's not the same situation, my husband and i split up in 2010 and had this post been available to me then, i think i wouldn't have had such a hard time of it. the death of a relationship is by no means the same as a death of a partner, but it does require the same type of grieving AND the same steps to get over.

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  19. I'm so sorry for your lost and wish all the strength for now and the future.

    When I was child, my sister died in our family home, on my parents' bed. I found the (and still find)little links to her a comfort. I knew that she died in a place where she is loved and I used to lie on my parents' bed and think about her, or gaze aroud my bedroom, even though her bed and most of her possessions had been removed (my mum's way of coping). I don't think of myself as materialistic, but when my parents talk about rebuilding the house, I get angry and upset.

    I suppose it comes down to how individual the process of grieving is.

    Now at 21, I am applying for life insurance, I have a will (I own a flat) and I hope to keep these updated as my relationship progresses. My dad's best friend died young and unexpectedly leaving a widow and newborn – which is why my dad is so keen on legally protecting ourselves and our loved ones and I'm glad he has taught me the same.

  20. omg im in tears. thank you thank you for posting this. my husband has a life threatening disease that has given him the need for a trach, ventilator, feeding tube…basically a hospital in our house complete with nursing staff. i often think about what will happen when he passes. i needed to read this. thank you. im so sorry that your partner passed ((huggs))

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  21. I am so, so sorry for your loss. Words cannot even express the pain I felt in my heart when reading this. I could only imagine if I lost my husband, my best friend. Sending you lots of love and comfort. Your partner is so lucky to have been so loved.

  22. A belated thanks for writing this. It can be the practical things getting in the way that makes grieving really hard. I am most terribly sorry that you have been through this, and I hope you go on to have a wonderful, thrilling and contented life.

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