Carolyn L. Higgins – Contributing Writer
“Whatever you think, honey.” These words resound in the hollows of her heart and mind as Millie Griffin mourns the recent loss of her husband, Earl Griffin. Surrounded by more than 150,000 books in her business, Millie’s Used Books, no words on those pages can fill that void. Faced with challenges as she continues to resolve estate matters, medical expenses, utility bills, creditor issues and unexpected events, Griffin wishes she had received guiding words to recall. “Dealing with death is only the beginning,” said Griffin. “Dealing with everything afterward is absolutely horrible. Anyone who has not been through the pain of losing their spouse cannot possibly understand how devastating the loss can be.” Griffin says she wants to share her experiences, and if even one woman or man who has lost a spouse benefits, it would be worth it. Much is in her words, because it is somewhat difficult to express another person’s grief. “At first I think you are in such a fog of shock, disbelief, fright and so many other descriptive behaviors that you do not have a thought of what is really ahead of you. All your friends and associates are always there to pay their condolences, and some offer and do help with physical things that you cannot handle alone. My bookstore customers have absolutely been thoughtful and caring. And when he died, that funeral home was packed because he loved the customers. And they used to tell me when they were having a bad day, they would come to the bookstore because they would always leave laughing.” The late Griffin passed on Jan. 23, 2018, from injuries he sustained in a fall at their home. He was confident in his wife’s ability to tackle business issues since she had been a proprietor for more than 30 years. However, it took some coercing to convince him to become a partner in her bookstore. “My husband has never signed a check in all the years we’ve been married, and if he did, the bank probably sent it back because I handled everything,” said Griffin jokingly. “I’m a retired accountant, and I handled the business. He made a deal with me when we retired. He said he would do all the cooking if I’d handle all the business. I said, well I handle all the business anyway, but I guess we’re going to have boiled water three times a day. But, he turned out to be a pretty good cook.” According to Griffin, he was a great and loving man with many talents, and in 26 years of marriage, she can only recall about five major disagreements. This has advantages and disadvantages Griffin is discovering as she battles with companies and municipalities for simple matters from changing bills into her name to settling disputed amounts. At a time when she should have the peace to grieve and focus on rebuilding her life, she is both shocked and disappointed by the lack of cooperation, compassion and respect for widows and widowers. Colleagues, customers and strangers alike have begun to share their similar trials with her. Unforeseen challenges “Now the nightmare truly begins,” said Griffin. “You contact your utility companies to report that your spouse has died and ask them to put your name on the billing – electric, phone, TV, credit cards, internet – anything you will get billings for just to go on living. Your reply is ‘No, we cannot do that. You have to make application to us and set up a new account.’ And to this you reply: ‘But we already have an account; we have been paying you for many years. I do not understand.’ They reply to you: ‘No, your husband had an account. We have no account for you or any payment history for you. You will probably have to pay a deposit also because you have no payment record with us.’” Griffin recalled going to the Macon County Courthouse to file her husband’s will where she discovered that even with the will, only a certain amount was tax free, because her name was not on everything. She called the credit card company to get balances, and the representative would not discuss the account because she was not the primary cardholder although she always had a card bearing her name. A trip to the vehicle tag office also yielded a challenge. She learned that to change the car title into her name, she had to get a special document from the courthouse giving her permission to transfer the title from her husband’s name to her name. Griffin believes people grieve different ways and that is their right, but how can you let go when you are continuously confronted with painful memories? She has friends and customers, including one whose husband has been dead 30 years, who still receive utility bills in their husbands’ names. “My mother was the strongest person I know,” said Griffin. “She was hell on wheels, and she always said her favorite thing was, ‘You fall off that bicycle, you get up and get back on.’ And so, I knew that I couldn’t sit around feeling sorry for myself, so I returned to the bookstore after a week. However, when the elderly customer heard me talking on the phone and she walked up to the counter and said, ‘Millie, my husband died 30 years ago and that’s exactly what I went through. Everything still comes to me in his name and it hurts every time I see his name on that envelope, [I’m thinking] ‘when you always see that coming in every single month – over and over – I’m looking at that and thinking, oh gosh, I wish he was here.’” Griffin feels companies, especially utility companies should make special efforts to ensure accounts are set up to protect the spouse. “If they made an effort to try to work with you at the time the account is set up, it sure would save a world of grief after death,” said Griffin. “When I questioned Frontier as to why they would not put the billing in my name only (both names were on the mailing address); because I actually was the one who opened the account when we moved here, I was told me that they always put the account identification in the man’s name. I asked why the plumbing mattered? And of course, I got no answer. I said what you just said is absolutely ridiculous. It’s sexist. That’s the point I’m trying to make, and I had similar situations with Verizon and Duke Energy.” “I think that if they [all the above] had a heart for someone [it would be different], but I believe quite frankly most of them don’t give a [blank] one way or another,” said Griffin. “From years ago, I remember they said the man is the leader of the household. Well, things really have changed over the years. When Earl and I got married, that was one thing he had to deal with. I made more money than him, and I never threw it into his face. I asked him one time, ‘does that bother you,’ and he said ‘goodness no, I’m proud of you.’ “ If you look back in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s when most women were the little housewives, they worked their buns off. They were the woman of the house – the husband was the leader of the family – he took care of this and that. But people need to remember this is America. You’re not talking about people in some foreign country where women don’t count, and that’s the problem.” Sharing policies of a few providers Duke Energy’s Media Department Spokesperson Meredith Archie provided the following information, noting it is a pretty simple process and no deposit should be required. The customer would need to call customer service number 1-800-777-9898 and they would begin a service application. The person would provide the address and let them know that the spouse who the account name is under is deceased. Then provide customer service with the Social Security number, date of birth and phone number so the bill may be changed. They do encourage customers to keep the account information updated. Frontier Internet deferred to their Change of Ownership Support Team (also called the Supersedure Department). For residential changes, the process is to request new paperwork from the surviving spouse. The form is mailed, faxed or emailed to the applicant and may be sent back by the same method along with a copy of the death certificate. He or she signs as the incoming customer (spouse who wants to take it over). There is no deposit required. It is the same process for a business except where the form asks for Social Security number, it would be the Employer Identification Number. In each case, the Change of Ownership is good for 45 days from the date of death and the change for the final bill will be prorated based on that date. The final bill will be provided, and there will be no interruption in service. What is happening is a records order is being generated for the new owner requesting credit information, where the bill goes, etc. The North Carolina court system has frequently asked questions about solving estate matters on their website at www.nccourts.org The North Carolina Utilities Commission may handle utilities matters at http://www.ncuc.commerce.state.nc.us/overview/contactus.htm Letting go gracefully After a fall on Oct. 6, 2017, that left him facedown and unconscious in their driveway with major head injuries and skinned up arms, Earl started going downhill and never recovered. There were trials along the way, including getting gangrene on his arm at a local hospital due to “improper care.” Griffin believes if not for the intervention of their veterinarian friend who treated her husband’s wound, he would have passed sooner. “I literally watched him die,” said Griffin. “When he started getting worse and worse, I told him he needed hospice. So, I called in Elizabeth House from Hendersonville, N.C. (hospice). They got a bed to him on Friday, but he wouldn’t stay in the bed. When I’d go to bed at night – and we don’t know how because he couldn’t walk from the bed to the bathroom – someway he would crawl out of the bed so he could get to me. To be honest, I did not realize it then, but I honestly started preparing for Earl’s death after that accident. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I could see the difference in him immediately.” Visibly shaken, Griffin recounted how her husband’s continued deterioration and lack of cohesion led to a family decision to move him to hospice. They had an agreement ahead of time, and she knew it was the best thing for him. “I went and sat down, and I said ‘Honey, the ambulance is going to come and take you to hospice,’” said Griffin. “And he said, ‘Do I have to go?’ I said, ‘yes,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Okay if you say so, I’ll go.’ And I’ve always felt guilty about that.” She recalled a response from him when their daughter Margaret asked to take their beloved pit bull Katie home with her. “He was already on the ambulance gurney, but we heard this weak voice say, ‘You’re not taking my dog,’” said Griffin. “And I looked at her [Margaret] and I said, ‘you’re not taking my dog.’ That was the last full sentence he made. This brought chuckles from a tearful Griffin. Fortunately, the heartwarming experience dealing with hospice provided a temporary buffer. He was unconscious and resting peacefully but did receive the honor of a military service at the facility, a special blanket, flag and pin to denote his 11-year career. After leaving her husband’s side at hospice and returning home to Franklin, within a few hours, she received a call. “We went back and got there at 5 a.m.,” said Griffin. “The doctor called me into the hallway and said, ‘You’re going to have to tell him it’s alright for him to go.’ She said you’re going to have to set your mind that you’re going to have to do that. I said, ‘How do you do that?’ and she said, ‘You’ll deal with it; you’ll just have to tell him he doesn’t have to worry about you, because you’re the only name that he’s saying.’ After the service that morning, she reminded me again that I had to tell him. So everyone else backed up to the end of the room. I took his hand, and I said, ‘I love you, but you’ve go to go to sleep now – I’m okay.’ And he died at 11:50. But he squeezed my hand as I said that.” Moving forward and sharing some Millie-isms Even through her grief and mourning and continued trials with insurance companies, denials of benefits, challenges with creditors and more, Griffin wants to try to lessen the pain for others. “I know I’m a strong person, but I feel other people’s pain, and I always have,” said Griffin. “Pauline is a lady that worked for me in Tampa as the director of my school. She used to say, ‘Ms. Millie you need to hang that shingle. I’ve never seen anyone who could come into that office and they would leave apologizing because you had to get on them or talk them through things.’ I said, ‘I can deal with other people’s problems to a point, but I don’t like sitting and telling them mine.’ I could not control the fact that I lost my husband. I know that I had to sit down and instead of feeling sorry for myself, I had to just sit back and be thankful for all the years we did have. I have moments; I still do, and it is usually when I’m by myself. I have a moment and I’ll cry, then I’m okay. I can’t bring him back by sitting around feeling sorry for myself. So, I thought I’m going to make a life for myself.” Griffin has a few Millie-isms to share that will hopefully help others: • If it’s something you can control, control it. If you can’t control it, then you lay it aside, and you go one about your business. And that’s what I’ve come to terms with. • Speak up and make your requests known; question things that don’t look right when dealing with the care of a loved one, • Expect hospitable treatment, good customer service and kindness from providers. • You’ve got to have these things to live – Duke, Verizon, Frontier – all of them. It’s the same thing. All of the utility people, they put everything in the man’s name. When somebody’s been married for eons, it’s obvious it came out of the household, then there should be an exception. But if they [utility companies and other service providers] don’t want to do that, when somebody calls to set up an account with them, I think they should automatically say to them, ‘Do you want this in one name or two?’ They always go by your Social Security number. So, say if they want it in two, then just say, I need your spouse’s Social Security number as well. Hey, it’s going to be a win-win for them because they’ve got two people obligated to pay. • While your spouse is still alive but is the owner of all of these accounts, you need to have your husband contact them, put your name on there, your Social Security number as the co-owner and use the words “Right of Survivorship.” So whoever goes, the survivor will assume that. • So many people feel if you have a will, you’re protected because everything is left to me in the will. No you’re not, because according to the law, you can only gain [a certain amount] that’s not yours before you have to pay tax on it. The magic words are right of survivorship. It’s the same with a house, a car and everything. Most people don’t know you’ve got to go and file it at the courthouse. If you have to go through probate [instead of having a will], by the time they go through it and all the legal fees are taken out, they don’t have much left. • Make sure you have a Health Care Power of Attorney while your spouse is alive so you can make decisions on their behalf when they become gravely ill. Also have a Living Will that lets medical people know your dying wishes to be kept alive, taken off life support, etc. Griffin felt it was the compassionate thing to do in opening the pages of her book of life. She encourages others to share their stories and their tips as part of the healing process.