Balloons, chocolates and life admin.
Updated: Feb 18, 2019
If you’re glad to see the back of pink balloons and overpriced chocolates, it might interest you to know that today is Singles Awareness Day – a day to acknowledge and celebrate all those who are not coupled up, whether by choice or by chance.
In our guest blog post, Lifefyle user Judith Katz remembers how 10 years ago, she was almost floored by admin in the aftermath of losing her partner and reflects on her relationship with paperwork now.
Hearts. There are hearts everywhere. It’s February 2010 and I’m in the supermarket with my 2-year-old toddler and my 4-month-old baby. The cashier coos at the baby, gives my toddler a charity token and asks whether I’m doing anything nice for Valentine’s Day.
I pause before answering. Do I say it? No. Not really fair. Let’s substitute it for something neutral and non-committal. But the truth is I’m not planning anything for Valentine’s Day 2010, because I was widowed six months ago.
This post isn’t the place to go into the legacy of emotional devastation left in the wake of Sam’s sudden death at 41 from an undiagnosed heart condition. So, I’m going to talk about admin instead. If one thing could embody the vulnerability I felt at that time it was probably the paperwork - the sheer, grinding, oppression of paperwork generated by an unexpected death.
It astonishes me now just how little of the everyday admin I had done until that point. When we first met, Sam was 30 and just about to exchange on his first flat. I was a 19-year-old student, living in a series of rooms across London and very happily delegating the boring stuff to more practical housemates. Even when we bought a place together a few years later, it was Sam who researched the mortgage, the utilities, the insurance, the council tax… After all, he’d done it before and I was now buckling under the workload of a full-time teacher.
Gleefully declaring himself ‘several thousand pounds worth of annoying’, Sam also took on the various challenges of unfair bank penalties, the slapdash delivery company and taking our flat’s property management company to a tribunal. The car was second-hand from my parents and so became my responsibility, along with our passports, but that was about it. All the while, our household direct debits trickled messily out of three different bank accounts: mine, his and the joint.
Now, in the space of an hour, everything had become my sole responsibility, from switching broadband provider to making choices about our children’s future. Two days later, I opened the sideboard door and pulled out a pile of scruffy foolscap folders, fat with documents.
I still have the notebook I kept for three or four months after Sam’s death. It is full, not of thoughts, but lists – pages and pages of them, each with annotations to annotations squeezed round the margins in red pen. I’d kneel on the floor till two or three in the morning, poring over the letters and forms spread out before me, trying not to let my pregnant belly knock them all out of order and hoping that the waves of cortisol and adrenaline heaving through my body wouldn’t harm our unborn baby.
Telephone conversations started to blend into each other. Yes, I have the account name. No, I’m not the account holder. The account holder is dead. Thank you, I appreciate it. Yes, I’ll wait while you put me through to the bereavement team. No, we might not have a death certificate for a while. Are you allowed to tell me when the next payment will be taken? OK, I see. What can I do to avoid the account going into arrears?
I began to try to put together the puzzle of our case against the property management company. Sam’s email account held the missing pieces… or did it? Despite repeated requests, sending the required documents, explaining the situation over and over again, I never did manage to gain access and so each legal question, each detailed query, slammed me with greater force against the permanence of his loss.
As months and years passed though, so too did the intensity of the initial shock. Grief is never fully eroded, but time gradually smooths its more jagged edges. In calmer times, I bought the freehold, sold the flat. Later years would bring more and happier paperwork: title deeds, a marriage certificate, a declaration of parental responsibility, a P45, my own business’s name on a certificate from Companies House.
And finally, now that the admin has shrunk from Leviathan to mundane fact of life, I can face the paperwork that really matters: the love letters, photographs and half-finished novels. Poems scrawled on defunct train tickets.
Papers documenting the moments that define a life.