Lately the Grim Reaper and I have grown so close we might as well exchange friendship bracelets. My mom — therapist, beachgoer, "Jeopardy!" fan — died of liver disease in 2020. In 2023, my dad — architect, golfer, ABBA fan — died of pancreatic cancer. I'm 35 years old, smack dab in the middle of the Millennial generation, and grief is the least of my problems. What I'm really struggling with is the legal and financial aftermath.
In the days before my dad died, the hospital was already asking me to make major financial decisions. What funeral home or crematorium do you want to use? Do you really want the basic package? Was your beloved father basic? Funeral homes aren't even required to list prices on their websites — though that may be changing thanks to the Federal Trade Commission. While Dad was on his deathbed, I was Googling customer reviews and checking my credit card limit.
Since then, my life has been consumed by settling my parents' estate. Executor and Successor Trustee is my new part-time job — one I never asked for, and one I'm technically not being paid to do, though I suppose the inheritance counts. Over the past few months, I've learned about death certificates (you will need an absurd number of copies), the difference between having something notarized and getting a Medallion Signature Guarantee (the latter is essentially a fancier version of the former), and how you should respond when your dead parent receives a jury summons (depends on the state, but you usually have to contact the County Clerk to have the aforementioned dead parent removed from their lists). I've had to sell a condo, a boat and a car. Real estate: every Millennial's expertise!
On top of the complicated stuff that might get me in trouble with the law if I mess up, there's also the weird, sad stuff. In their Florida condo, my mom had 34 decorative fish. What am I supposed to do with those? What's the best way to transfer my dad's ashes from the basic urn to the nicer, Frank Lloyd Wright-esque urn I purchased for his eternal rest? The answer, as it turns out, is a Solo cup.
And then there's the memorial, which is like planning a depressing wedding, both in logistics and in cost. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a funeral in 2021 was $7,848 — a little less if the guest of honor is cremated. But that's what the life insurance money is for, right? Assuming your parents had a life insurance policy.
Fortunately, ours did — a few, in fact. We held my mom's memorial at a local bar-restaurant and catered it with her favorite pizza. We held my dad's at the golf course near our childhood home — he designed the clubhouse. It was easier the second time around: we already had easels to display the pictures, and we were able to import the invites from Mom's big day over to Dad's.
No one is truly prepared for their parents to die. When I asked my aunts and uncles and friends' parents for advice, they didn't have much to spare—all they could remember was the horrible grief of it. And many of them had hired lawyers and accountants to deal with the bureaucracy for them; unlike my generation, their generation had already built the financial security to afford such luxuries.
In Boomers' defense, those luxuries can sometimes become necessities. Though my dad had a living trust — which should have saved my sister and me from probate court — he failed to update one life insurance policy, so it does have to go through probate, and we've hired a lawyer in Florida accordingly. We'll be more than able to cover her fees with the money we're paying her to get for us.
But I'd argue that Millennials are particularly ill-equipped to navigate the obstacle course of estate law. I'm extraordinarily privileged in that I have no student loans to pay off and my parents weren't carrying loads of debt. The vast majority of my friends — and the vast majority of my generation — are not in my position. Many Millennials are barely scraping by as it is. And while for some of them, an inheritance may help, for others there will be no inheritance — only more creditors to deal with.
Even as a privileged Millennial, this process is by no means easy. Every day, whether I'm trying to untangle my parents' TD Ameritrade account (how does the stock market work?) or correct my dad's death certificate (did you know a death certificate can be wrong?), I'm confronted with the reality that I have no idea what I'm doing. It's terrifying.
Death wasn't a taboo in our household, but it wasn't a common dinner table conversation, either. I knew both my parents wanted to be cremated. My mom sometimes joked that we should "just shoot her" if she became very ill, and though my dad had plenty of guns (which I also had to figure out how to sell), none of us wanted to call her bluff during her last days. After I broke the news that he wasn't going to get out of the hospital this time, my dad told me the name of his lawyer. "He won't screw you," were his exact words.
I wish death had been a common dinner table conversation. Money, too. Don't spend more than you have is about the extent of my financial literacy. I wish my parents had talked to me about their assets instead of leaving me a cardboard box full of paperwork to comb through next to the Christmas decorations. At least I'm old enough to know how a checkbook works.
People keep telling me how sad it is that I lost both parents at such a young age. Here's what I want to tell them: I'm at the bottom of a bell curve. The Boomers are starting to die — my parents just went early. Over the next decade or two, more and more of my peers are going to join the dead parents club. The time to get cozy with the Grim Reaper is now, before he comes uninvited.
personal essays about parents dying