The paperwork that makes death even crueller

Just as you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, you face a mountain of callous red tape. Catherine Darby, whose husband John died 16 months ago, shares her tips for easing the burden.

grief paperwork
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It’s been just over a year since my husband died. My widowhood didn’t come as a result of Covid, or out of the blue. At 59, John had been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer with a prognosis of six months to two years. That he made it to 65 was thanks to the care of his consultant, but it still didn’t make me prepare for the inevitable.

I found it unbearable when John first showed me how to change the filter in the water jug we kept in the fridge. When we drew up our wills, I jovially said that as I was a year older I could easily go first. When he was in hospital for the final time, a neighbour’s broken pipe emptied 1,000 litres of oil into our septic tank. John assured me that we had house insurance if needed. I didn’t ask where it was, who it was with nor when it might expire.

It was in those numb days after John’s death, a week before Christmas 2019, that the tsunami of ‘sadmin’ hit. Never was a word better coined for the administration of life after death. When it’s hard to take in that the person you love has gone, the amount of paperwork and household duties – tasks you haven’t thought about for years – that suddenly appear can be overwhelming.

Guided by the hospice palliative team (and, eventually, the funeral directors), I had no idea that I had to register a death within five days – it is a criminal offence not to. I needed a medical certificate from our GP or the hospice in order to arrange John’s funeral. And only once registered, still reeling from the loss, did I get the death certificate essential for closing bank accounts, ending direct debits and settling any inheritance. But these immediate practicalities were just the start. Staring down the list of life-and-death administration, it appeared endless. This is what I’ve learnt…

You should ask for help

‘It’s normal to feel confused when you’re working through all the admin,’ reassures Andy Langford, clinical director at Cruse Bereavement Care, whose free helpline answered 68 per cent more calls in 2020 than it did in 2019. ‘It’s a lot to take in, and it can be really challenging to process complex information when you are bereaved.’

You may be asked by the registrar if you want to register for the government’s Tell Us Once service which reports a death to most government organisations in one go. It is indeed a boon, until I was informed I could no longer drive the car because my husband was the registered keeper. I live ten miles from the nearest town and there’s no bus service. Thankfully, the DVLA change came as swiftly as its notification, but be prepared to organise back-up transport.

Can anyone else help with the admin? If an executor has been named in the will (there can be up to four), they can help sort out the estate of the deceased. I was one executor and a trusted friend (a retired solicitor) was the other – his help on matters such as probate and switching the house to my name on the Land Registry has been invaluable. A list of solicitors is available on the Law Society website.

Get your affairs in order if you can

John had filed essentials such as our wills and birth certificates, but I now keep folders for all the invoices, important documents and utility bills in one place. And in the weeks that followed his death, I began keeping a log of monthly outgoings and incomings on one page and a to-do list on the opposite. I had to allow for the continual brain fog: I knew my passport was about to expire but where had I put it? Knowing how I prioritise the pets, I found it in the same drawer as the dog’s and cats’ vaccination records.

In this era of data protection, knowing your loved one’s passwords is crucial. I learned the old-fashioned way, a regularly updated notebook kept in a safe place, would be best after I found myself snookered when trying to access John’s passwords. They were kept in his laptop – and I had no clue as to what the password to that might be. Together with his brother and running out of guesses, in a last throw of the dice we typed in the original code, Windows123. We were in!

sailingKnow your house and who can help with it

It was a freezing night in January, the month after John had died, when I realised I had yet to understand how the house worked. I’d already navigated one power cut and, bit by bit, had been getting to grips with the inner workings of the home we’d shared for 20 years: locating the stopcock, finding the immersion heater, resetting the oven clock.

When the boiler switched off that winter night I had no idea where to start. But John was still able to help me. After scrabbling around, I found a card he had left with the name of a plumber, who came out that evening. This prompted me to keep another notebook with the contact details of essential services, local tradesmen and a handyman – sourced by asking for recommendations on my local Facebook group. Now living alone, lifting anything heavy became an embittering challenge. A friend advised getting a flat trolley on wheels. It’s empowering to know I can now move a coal bag.

Elsewhere, increasingly urgent demands for the electricity reading, something John had always managed, meant I had to find the meter cupboard key in the drawers full of odds and sods, kept just in case. Once I had located the key and opened the door, it promptly fell off. I then received a sky-high bill which I queried, and asked for tips on cutting down its cost. On ringing the provider’s bereavement support line, I was surprised when the operator replied, ‘Why are you one person living in a four-bedroom house?’

‘Because my invalid husband died three weeks ago and I haven’t had time to move,’ I snapped back, and burst into tears.

‘Most utility companies currently don’t do enough to support bereaved people,’ says Andy Langford – it’s why Cruse launched its Bereaved Customers First campaign in 2019, which aims to reduce the emotional burden bereaved people face when contacting businesses about someone’s death. ‘It is vital companies are not causing their bereaved customers further distress at an already very difficult time,’ he says. Ask for the name of the customer service operator and if they can’t help, ask who can, given your circumstances. I found in two instances I was put into a priority group.

Don’t go through it on your own

Pre-Covid, accepting any help got me through some of the worst days. Friends helped me clear out John’s clothes for the hospice shop. And during the past year, they continue to be on hand for connecting the broadband and even delivering a complete Christmas dinner for one to my doorstep. It’s such a comfort to know you are thought of – it helps you to continue trying to cope.

Online, Facebook hits you when you’re down, posting On This Day photos of the beloved. Initially I flinched, but sharing with friends does bring the virtual warmth of others’ memories and supportive comments when you can’t be with them in the flesh.

In the first lockdown I braced myself to sell my husband’s pride and joy, our boat. We’d sailed together for 40 years but John knew the boat’s rigging and sails. He’d tenderly covered it up and tucked it away in our garage before what turned out to be his final year. When I received an offer to buy it, I realised the mast was missing.

Fellow sailors rallied round and independently tracked it down at the yacht club. Piercing the white noise of grief, it was only then I remembered John had told me where he’d put it. I wasn’t quite going mad, though, as a dear friend said he too had forgotten where it was – and he’d helped John to put it there.

Essential steps after losing a loved one

By Andy Langford of Cruse Bereavement Care

When someone dies there are some important practical things that need to be done…

  • Get a medical certificate from a doctor (GP, hospital or hospice). You need this to register the death.
  • Register the death within five days – you’ll then get the documents you need for the funeral.
  • It’s best to get a few copies of the death certificate, which you’ll have to pay for. You’ll need these for when you’re closing bank accounts or contacting certain companies.
  • Keep notes about each company you speak to, make sure you get the person’s name and number. Most banks and utility companies have a specialist bereavement team – ask to be put through to them.
  • Arrange the funeral, usually with a funeral director – but you can do it yourself.
  • Talk to family or friends who might offer practical assistance as well as emotional support.
  • It’s always a good idea to encourage your loved ones to write a will, make lists of all accounts, have paperwork in one place (and obviously do this yourself!). This will make the admin much easier after they have passed away.
  • Free end-of-life admin help is available at and Find support, advice and contacts at Cruse Bereavement Care on 0808 808 1677 or at