3 lessons from death’s classroom
Unwelcome learning experiences await us when we lose a parent, says Scott Dunlop.
Death, in the Terry Pratchett Discworld series at least, is a grim reaper waiting to scythe souls out of life and into whatever waits beyond. Not too many people picture death as a teacher, but he is.

The trouble is that the lessons are learned in retrospect. That’s like a school teacher failing the entire class for not making it through exams they hadn’t even realised they were writing. Occasionally, though, the lessons death teaches can come in handy for future experiences.

I was recently turned into that oddest of states: an adult orphan. My father died in hospital just over two weeks ago after a relatively brutal period of ill-health and the experience sent me to the back of the class in death’s lecture room.

Wills, ghosts and unwelcome surprises

Feeling like a child once more, I was transported to my parents’ now-empty house to poke disconsolately through the talismans of childhood: ornaments, photos and objects that, without them there, took on an uncomfortable vacuum. My mother’s spectacles. My father’s cigarette butts in his car's ashtray. Even the grocery cupboard with its sparse contents whispered “they’ll never need this” to me.

We all know that the responsible thing to do is to have a will. My father had one, thank goodness, but it was one two-page document out of maybe seventy folders of crap. Ancient emails my mother had printed out (she died six years ago), bills, invoices, newspaper pages, accounts, scraps of handwritten paper. The lawyer had suggested (rather blithely, I’d suggest) that I just pop the most important documents across to him and he’d get the settling of the estate going.

No room for emotions. The task just meant ditching reams of paper (but having to scan every single folder). I found the deed to their house sandwiched in a file full of church hymns. Evidence of a loan he’d made to someone on three scraps of paper wedged under the phone.

Here’s a brief aside: to the timeshare company that sold my seventy-year-old father a twenty-year holiday plan two years ago: a hearty ‘fuck you’.

So lesson number one is that your will is just the red wax on your slice of Gouda. You need to collate the most important papers along with your will. Even if you leave your estate to the local dog’s home, someone will have to try and make sense of it.

Used furniture dealers and antique dealers will happily offer to “take things off your hands”. In an emotional state it is tempting to accept this offer, but there some unscrupulous people out there. They’ll see dollar signs in their own eyes before they notice the tears in yours. Hold off on selling things if you can. Fewer chances that you’ll make decisions you’ll regret… Another lesson.

My own experience of grief (so far) has been administrative, then. Ordering a cremation, filing papers, signing off on certain documents and not having time to go through the emotions at all.

On the way home from the holiday town where my parents had lived and died, we stopped off to pick up his ashes from the crematorium. After a week of stress, phone calls, intense acceptance of condolences from his friends and other distractions, I burst into tears. There, in this paper parcel were the carbon remnants of a man. A parent who’d once swung me through the air on the beach and picked me up when my feet had grown tired. The parcel was heavy, but not nearly heavy enough.

That’s the last lesson I have for now: emotions will catch you off-guard, and that’s okay. They say that death is the great leveller, but only after the mountains of paperwork have been ascended.

What was your most striking experience on the death of a parent?

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