The Cost of Things: When Your Grandma Suddenly Dies

The world changes but life goes on

Grandma, at 100, who traveled to NY to meet her first great grand-baby

My beloved, 103-year-old grandma Edna died early Friday morning. The funeral was set for Sunday at noon in Washington, DC. This is what the ramifications have been, money-wise, so far.

  • Death notice running in the Washington Post$305

I called and asked the paper, while I was writing the notice, about parameters and prices. They wouldn’t tell me. Just write it, they said, and then we’ll be able to tell you the cost. After I wrote and submitted the notice, they told that would be $305.

“Could I knock off words to get that down at all?” I asked, when we spoke again. “I could edit to make it a line or two shorter.” I had written died peacefully, for example. I could take out the word peacefully. Did readers care? Would they believe me? Can anyone die peacefully, anyway, is that even possible?

The woman on the phone jolted me from these considerations. “No, no point,” she assured me. “It’s way over.”

Way over what? She hadn’t given me any guidelines.

But I was crying and it all had to be done in haste to run the next day, so I shrugged and gave her my credit card number. Someone asked me recently why everything to do with death is so expensive and this, in part, is why: because when mortality is involved, it seems petty to bargain. Also because other people know that and can take advantage.

  • Last-minute Amtrak tickets for the funeral in DC, bought and then canceled for e-voucher credit: $232 one way
  • Last-minute airline ticket for the funeral, bought and then canceled for refund: $257 for one person, one way
  • Food bought for car trip, which is how we actually ended up getting down there: ~$50
  • Gas: $44
  • Tolls: $57 (EZ-pass rate, round trip)
  • Gift for friend who ended up lending us her car: ~$50

Transportation is another huge headache when an out-of-state funeral requires that people figure out how to get from here to there and back again in a hurry. Factoring children in makes everything even more complicated and expensive.

I didn’t know whether bereavement fares were an urban legend; some sources I checked said they’re no longer offered while others said you could still find them on some flights if you called and spoke to the right representative. Again, in our case, there wasn’t time to figure it out.

Thankfully a local friend was willing to lend us her car. That allowed us to take the far more economical option of driving the five hours down, which we did, with Babyboy, Saturday evening, after he got all shot up by the pediatrician at his six-month check up Saturday afternoon. We spent the night, attended the funeral, the burial, and a couple of hours of shiva at my mom’s, and then drove the five hours back Sunday evening.

  • Gift for other friends who took in our older child, BG, Saturday evening-Monday morning, so that we won’t have to be bring a four-year-old on a journey that would be both emotionally and physically exhausting: TBD

They were total champs to step up and take in BG, so we’re going to send them to dinner at the restaurant of their choice.

I grew up ten minutes away from my grandma and grandpa, and I saw them all the time. We had Shabbes dinner with them Friday nights, like in the Gilmore Girls, only with less acrimony. Less drama, too. They were calm people, good-humored and patient and loving. They weren’t as well-off as Emily and Richard, but they had done well for themselves, especially considering my grandpa started off with nothing, one of five children of immigrant parents living in one of those famously overcrowded, under-heated tenement buildings on the Lower East Side. Forget having his own bedroom; he didn’t have his own bed.

He went to New York City public schools, and then CCNY, which was free then, and excellent. He got a BA and an MA during the Depression, and then he went to war, and afterwards moved to DC to work for the government: as Comptroller for the VA and the National Science Foundation, and as Budget Director for NASA. I didn’t know any of that until after he died and I was tasked with writing up a death notice for him. When I knew him, he was retired, and he had the kind of retirement that people dream of. He bought a house in Vermont and spent half the year up there with my grandma, walking constantly, shopping for produce at farmer’s markets, cooking sensible meals at home. He put a darkroom in that house so that he could develop the mostly black-and-white pictures he won occasional awards for.

My grandpa Did Money professionally, and personally he did money well too. He saved, he invested, and by the time he died, at age 89, he left my grandma enough that she wouldn’t have to worry about it for the rest of her life. She did worry, though. She couldn’t help it. My grandma didn’t know how to work an ATM; she had left all the finance stuff to him. With him gone, my mom had to teach her. Well, at first the job fell to my Uncle Steve. My grandma leaned more on him, her son, than on my mom, her daughter. Traditional attitudes can be hard to shake. Once Uncle Steve died suddenly too, though, right after my own father did, my grandma was left with only my mother. The two of them had been close. Dealing with the mundane, quotidian frustrations of handling life as widows, they became even closer. My grandma turned to my mom to find out what she could afford.

My mom tried to assure her mom that she could afford pretty much anything she wanted, but my grandma found that too hard to believe. She and my grandpa had been frugal their whole lives: moving a roll of toilet paper from one bathroom to another, rather than buying two; making clothes for the kids rather than buying them. In her old age, my grandma had means. At the same time, she couldn’t grasp what that meant. Even when shown the numbers, she couldn’t accept what they signified in terms of what she could spend; the prices of things tended to horrify her, so if told what a cruise, for example, cost, she would say, “No, don’t bother, I don’t need it.” My mother was left to make many decisions herself about my grandma’s well-being while also, as much as possible, respecting my grandmother’s wishes.

My grandma never went on that cruise. She stayed home and read novels, or went, occasionally, to other states with my mom to visit family. She watched the news, welcomed visitors, knit sweaters, laughed with relatives over the phone, clucked at the newspaper. And she walked — she walked constantly; when she couldn’t walk outside safely, she took herself up and down the hallways of her apartment building, back and forth, back and forth. We were all proud of her, but we had mixed feelings, too. Couldn’t she have an occasional treat? Didn’t she deserve a vacation?

Still, my grandparents’ economy is partly the reason that, when my grandma finally reached the point, at around 102 years old, that she needed live-in, round-the-clock help — annualized cost: over $100,000 — she could afford it. It’s also partly the reason that she didn’t need that kind of help until she was over 100, that she was able to stay in her own apartment, alone, that long: because she could afford to prioritize her health, as well as the trainer who helped keep her active and mobile. And because my mom probably obscured the cost.

It takes a village to have a good life for over a century. And good money habits — as well as lots of good luck — don’t hurt, either.

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