Student nurse Nicole Stanfield Caile flew back to the United States to care for her estranged father in his dying days.
But she was unable to grieve for him immediately after he died because he had not written a will and she had to make difficult decisions on his behalf.
The mum-of-one said it made dealing with loss even harder. She is now calling for other people to talk about death and end-of-life planning – before it is too late.
Nicole, 34, heads the Death Café in Taunton, a space where people can meet and speak openly about the taboo topic of dying.
And the outbreak of COVID-19 she has seen a four-fold increase in members – as more people are coming to terms with their mortality.
She said: “We are all going to die but it usually something people put off talking about. With the daily updates around Coronavirus, there is now a greater sense of urgency.
“We can’t prevent death. But we can prevent causing more upset for loved ones by talking about our plans, writing them down and making sure it’s legally binding where possible.”
Nicole, who is taking a degree in nursing at the University of Plymouth at their Exeter campus, is certified to provide palliative care.
Switching off life support
She learned her father, Chris Kouhi, had developed Type 2 diabetes and had had a hypoglycaemia shock because of the imbalance of insulin.
Chris had been unaware of his condition, which causes too much sugar in the bloods, and was sick for weeks before he went to hospital. He later had a heart attack and did not regain consciousness.
A relative sent Nicole a photo of her dad lying in a hospital bed with a beard, whereas he had previously been clean shaven.
Nicole said: “It was really shocking to see him this way. He had not been there like a typical father when I was growing up, but ill-feelings tend to melt away when someone is dying. I went into nursing mode and wanted to help him out practically.
“He had been fit and healthy, regularly working out, and lived like he was never going to die. There had been no sign before that he was unwell and he didn’t make any plans or write anything down for what should happen in the event of his death.
“He was on life support and couldn’t communicate. After weeks like this, I was left to make the decision to take him off the support and move him to a hospice for his final days.”
Funeral, money and property
This was the first of many difficult decisions Nicole had to make on behalf of her late father. Relatives then disagreed on how and where Nicole’s dad should be buried.
Nicole, who has done work placements at Musgrove Park Hospital, said: “He didn’t leave a will or anything in writing about what we should do with his body after he died. I had to think about what he would have wanted – though it didn’t please everyone.”
Her dad also had property with various investors, which was time-consuming and tricky to resolve. Nicole admits there may have been other assets she was unaware of.
Nicole had to publish an advert calling for anyone who may have a claim on his estate to contact the courts.
Her dad also did not make a note of how to distribute his belongings. This led to disagreements among some family members and friends.
Nicole, who works part-time at The Museum of Somerset, said: “It was a nightmare situation and some people came out of the woodwork. I couldn’t please everybody and would have felt more comfortable if I could have referred directly to my dad’s expressed wishes.
“I had to be very strong at what was already a really difficult and stressful time. It was all a shock to the system and the grief didn’t register until after his estate had been dealt with.”
Ben Mason, CEO of end-of-life planning firm Kinherit and a sponsor of the Death Café, said: “The last thing someone needs after the death of a loved one is to be worrying about finances.
“Planning for the inevitable can help save unnecessary headache and heartache for those we leave behind.”
With this in mind, Kinherit provides an online secure vault to store assets as well as a handover service.
This helps protect against loss of assets – or having to look for them – and makes it a more efficient and cost-effective service.
Dad-of-one Ben said: “It’s important to make sure your loved ones are provided for, but end-of-life planning goes beyond managing how your money and belongings are shared out.
“It can include everything from the kind of funeral service you would like, to ways to protect your children’s inheritance long after you’ve gone.”
Let’s talk about death
Nicole became involved in the Death Café in a bid to get people talking about death and to make plans. She hopes it will save their family from the extra hassle and heartache she experienced.
She said: “Some people think it’s morbid to talk about death and put up a wall – even though it is likely to impact them in so many ways and there are some things they can prepare for.
“I hope that if people can start talking about it with strangers, then hopefully it will lead to a conversation with the people it will affect in their lives.”
Nicole recommends getting professional advice where possible. She said: “Will-writing is unregulated and I know some people are choosing cheaper and easier options at this time.
“But I think it’s worth investing in quality support to avoid extra expense and complications further down the line. When it comes to protecting people you care about, such as your children, then it’s worth it for the peace of mind.”
But aside from practicalities, Nicole also urges people to talk about their feelings.
She said: “Don’t wait for the ‘right time’ to tell someone how much they mean to you. Tell people you love them and hug them when you can as you might not get the chance again.
“After my dad died, we found he had kept lots of photos of me and my daughter. He really cared for us in his own way, but he never expressed it. We didn’t know until after he died.”
The Death Café is currently being run on Zoom and with Facebook lives. It offers a safe place for people to talk about life and death.
Nicole said: “There is friendly chit chat and a lot of laughter, with people often leaving feeling lighter. Many people have made friends and professional connections here.
“We all know we are going to die, but talking about it and making plans over coffee and cake is the first step to give us peace of mind.
“Many attendees said they’ve spoken to their partner or parents as a result and feel better knowing that they are saving their loved ones from extra pain in the future.”
· For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/DeathCafeTaunton The next Zoom Death Café will take place at 2pm on Saturday, May 16. The Facebook Live Death Café will be at 2pm on Sunday, May 17.