Last week, my dear friend and neighbor K's husband was in a car accident and taken to the emergency room at a local hospital. He survived the wreck practically unscathed. However, F was sick. Terribly sick. He died four days later, on the morning of his birthday.
A few hours later, I heard the heartbreaking news from a mutual friend who had been with K when F passed. I immediately began making lists (food to make, supplies to buy, etc.). That night, a few of us met at K's to bring whatever comfort we could to our shocked and devastated friend. She was utterly at sea.
Before I left for the night, she worried aloud how to find all the necessary papers required for the funeral, insurance, etc,.because F's office was, to her overwhelmed mind, a total mess. I assured her that I would help sort it out -- "I'm an archivist, I can help you."
In the wee hours of the following morning, I turned on the computer and began searching for "death of a spouse" on Google. There were two main topics in the results -- financial guides and the mourning process. Narrowing the search to "death of a spouse, first steps" yielded survivor's checklists, which were very helpful.
First, I checked USAA, since it would have information for spouses of U.S. servicemen and women, and it had a good checklist available. AARP's site also supplied handy resources for those experiencing a loss.
I put together a small packet of checklists for K and included two personal stories of recent widows, in case she wanted to read about what these women had experienced. I also made a little kit for myself because the checklists said that she would need to find F's vital records (birth certificate, marriage certificate, etc.), mortgage and tax documents, and his military records, among other papers. The emergency records kit was very basic -- a file folder box with folders, small binder clips, pencils, and a legal pad.
When I arrived, K sketched a preliminary do-to list. I made another list of the records we'd need to accomplish her goals for the day. I also annotated the checklist packet to call out key phone numbers and required documents she would need for each item during the coming weeks.
Our first task was to find F's military discharge papers. These documents are required to bury servicemen and women in veterans' cemeteries. We also needed his veteran's benefits information for the insurance policy number.
K showed me F's office, which wasn't that much of a mess at all. It was clear that he had begun to put his papers in order. We went through a few locked boxes, and while K responded to sympathy calls, I put on my archivist hat and began to create and label some new folders with a simple numbering system. I then made a very quick inventory of the boxes so she would know where to find items later.
Together, we located the key papers she'd need right away. I fished some out of already existing folders and used binder clips to keep like items together, in case the folders were shuffled. I wrote the contents of the new folders on the folders themselves for quick access. I also wrote the contents of the vital documents folders on the inventory. Finally, I included on the inventory the original locations of the papers, so they could be returned to their "permanent" folders in the lock boxes when they weren't needed as urgently. Later, folders in hand, we provided the necessary papers to the funeral director to ensure that F would receive full military honors at the funeral, and be interred where he wished.
It was an emotionally exhausting day (I've only described a fraction of it), but K navigated it with grace and strength. She expressed her gratitude to me throughout the day, almost to the point where I became embarrassed. Being able to relieve her stress about finding the important documents and doing some triage arrangement seemed like the least I could do as her archivist friend. There is more to do, and this is just the beginning of an incredibly tough time for her.
Note: If you haven't already, let someone (spouse/partner/family member/best friend) know where your important papers and the keys to the lock boxes/safety deposit boxes are. Also, be sure to let them know of your final wishes. It's best to be prepared.