Life After Death

The playbook has me disabled by grief at this point, three weeks after Catherine died.

And sometimes I am disabled, with my mind scrunched up in thickets.

But there are periods of joy and beauty, both from within and from without. Anonymous muffins and soups dropped at our door (who would have thought I’d grow into a soup-lover; certainly not Catherine). Deep conversations with new and old friends. A new ability to not avert my eyes at places I used to. And a realization that Catherine, while not here, is still here. In ways that help and elevate my spirit, and ways that confound me.

And then there are all the practical things that need doing when somebody dies.

Here’s a list. Not intended as a reference as much as a way of processing everything I’ve been doing so it seems like more than just eating soup.

  1. Picked up a sheaf of official copies of Catherine’s death certificate from the Hillsboro Funeral Co-op. Almost everyone in officialdom calls for this at some point.
  2. Picked up a sheaf of “certified true” copies of Catherine’s will from our lawyer. I had a copy in our safe deposit box, but it wasn’t “certified true.” We last updated our wills in June of last year, when Catherine’s death seemed like known-but-still-far-off thing. I’m happy we screwed up our courage to do so, if only because our new lawyer comes from the “plain language” school of will-drafting, so there are blessed few “thous” and “thereuntos” to be found in the language.
  3. Closed Catherine’s accounts at Metro Credit Union, and inherited her RRSPs. I remember when we named each other as beneficiaries of our RRSPs, many years ago, and what a minor and insignificant thing that seemed. A box to be checked, a line to be initialed. “That’ll never happen!”
  4. Started a claim for the life insurance on our home equity line of credit at TD Bank. Another box we checked back in 2000 when we established the line of credit to help renovate 100 Prince Street. I’d forgotten that we even had insurance until, fortuitously, TD raised the rates the week Catherine died, and sent us a letter to inform us. I called, and, sure enough, we checked the right box and paid the right premiums. I had to get our family doctor to fill out a form attesting to Catherine’s cause of death, but otherwise the paperwork was simple, and the staff at TD helpful. So a huge debt, relatively speaking, may get wiped away. Still holding my breath on this.
  5. Started a claim for Catherine’s life insurance proper. Another instance where, when we took out a policy in 2007, our thoughts were that we were being responsible parents, not that we’d ever actually have to make a claim. If only because our somewhat-reasonable monthly premiums would escalate into the stratosphere in the next decade, and we’d likely have dropped the policy. Catherine’s policy was initially with AIG (which you’ll remember from the financial crisis of the last decade); their business got sold to Bank of Montreal, so that’s what I’m dealing with, with the help of the friendly folks at Connolly Group. Just had to fill in a few forms for this, and am awaiting next steps.
  6. Submitted the paperwork for Catherine’s Canada Pension Plan death benefit (a one-time lump sum) and my “survivor’s pension,” which, strangely, it seems like I will start to receive right away, not when I retire. Not enough to live on, by any stretch, but also not nothing.
  7. Cancelled Catherine’s Provincial Health Card.
  8. Paid the bill for Catherine’s cremation. By Interac e-transfer.
  9. Turned Catherine’s Facebook account into a “memorialized” one, at Oliver’s suggestion.
  10. Requested an archive of Catherine’s photos from Instagram and, a few days later, received it. My plan is to turn it into a static archive, then retire her Instagram account.
  11. Returned the bed Catherine had been using to its rightful owners (thank you!), and carted her mattress to the dump.
  12. Started to make handmade paper out of the condolence cards and letters we received, and the flowers that were at her celebration of life.
  13. Sent copies of Catherine’s Death Certificate to family members who flew here to be with us, so they can claim a bereavement refund from Air Canada. Heretofore I’d thought this was a myth, but it’s true, and appreciated.
  14. Cleaned out Catherine’s purse. That might have been the hardest, most intimate thing I’ve done since she died.
  15. Rearranged the living room a little. Found a $100 Lee Valley Tools gift certificate from 2000 hidden in the bookshelf (I’ll bet they’ll honour it!). Finally cleaned up the pile of books on my side-table as I’d been planning to for months.
  16. Had coffee or lunch dates with a good collection of open-hearted friends. Talked about Catherine a lot. Learned some things. Lots of things, actually. Including a lot about how people process, or don’t process, death. And how help can come from unexpected places.
  17. Accepted an invitation to come and cook together on Sunday with good friends.
  18. Arranged a date for a biannual gathering with friends that Catherine and I did together for the last 5 years. This year I’ll go with Oliver.
  19. Started to think about new homes for Catherine’s spinning wheels and other equipment, as well as her significant cache of fabric and fibre. I have time here, so I’m not in a rush. In the meantime I get a chance to sit in Catherine’s studio. Which is nice.
  20. Realized that, despite feeling relatively centred most of the time, I need to avoid movies about happy families doing happy things in their happy lives for a while.
  21. Slowly learning how to sleep through the night again. I do pretty well on the head-end, not so much on the morning side.
  22. Unsubscribed Catherine from a lot of email newsletters.
  23. Switched Catherine’s cell phone plan from a $40/month one to a $15/month one. Not quite ready to give up her number yet, just in case I need to close accounts that have SMS verification.
  24. Put a voicemail message on our “home phone number” (really just a redirect to Catherine’s mobile) giving people my cell number. Ultimately I think I’ll do away with this number. As far as I know the only place it still has any utility is as the key to unlock loyalty program points at Murphy’s Parkdale Pharmacy.
  25. Starting to get used to writing “my” instead of “our.”
  26. As if by magic, recalled the unlock code for Catherine’s iPad; I had to enter a trance-like state to accomplish this.

More than anything else, though, I’ve been father to Oliver. He has been enormously helpful, including insistence that, when people ask “how are you?”, I tell the truth (he forced me to retroactively retract my “as well as can be expected”-style replies from a couple of people). And an insistence that we keep on doing what we do.

I’ve also learned that our vocabulary for describing grief is primitive, and that most people, most of the time, however well-intentioned, fall back on well-worn tropes (“it’s a journey,” “it’s a process,” “it’s not a straight line”). Kind of like describing a strawberry as “fruity tasting.” Accurate, but in no way a helpful description of its splendours.

Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo

(Photo Catherine took in Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo, in the fall of 2016)


Olle Jonsson's picture
Olle Jonsson on February 5, 2020 - 17:32 Permalink

The bit Oliver suggested, memorializing the digital presence, is a kindness.

Wayne's picture
Wayne on February 5, 2020 - 19:12 Permalink

Palliative Care Centre offer services that have helped me. A small group meets for 10 weeks one night a week that is coordinated by staff. And they also offer a drop-in gathering the third Thursday of each month. They are good people, it is a peaceful place.

Robert Charles Paterson's picture
Robert Charles ... on February 6, 2020 - 08:14 Permalink


Clark's picture
Clark on February 6, 2020 - 09:04 Permalink

Thank you for mentioning memorializing the digital presence ... it's something I wasn't aware of or considered.

Andrew MacPherson 's picture
Andrew MacPherson on February 6, 2020 - 15:41 Permalink

Thanks for this post, Peter. I think it’s one of your best.