by Andrea Hansell
On a too-warm day in late May, I waited in a Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles branch office holding my dead husband’s license plates in my lap. Returning the plates was the last in a series of steps I had taken to return his car, stopping the monthly lease and insurance payments. None of these steps had been simple or straightforward. Two days earlier, a man had shown up at my door intending to repossess the car, which I had returned to the dealer weeks before.
“Now serving. H. Fifty. Seven. At window number. Six.”
At the staccato, automated announcement, I unstuck myself from the metal bench and approached window number six. I explained to the unsmiling clerk that my husband had recently passed away and I wanted to return his license plates. I handed her the two plates, remembering them attached to Jim’s car as he drove into our driveway each evening, his hand raised in a cheerful post-work greeting.
“Your driver’s license?” said the clerk. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand before fumbling in my purse.
The clerk typed furiously on her keyboard, pushed her glasses up her sweaty nose, and frowned at her computer screen. “Well, ma’am,” she said, in the voice of a kindergarten teacher who has caught a student fibbing about not having gotten his graham cracker at snack time. “These license plates indeed belong to someone at your residence. However, that person is not you. That person is a gentleman. And that gentleman must return these license plates himself.”
Trying to keep my voice even, I said, “Yes, my husband was indeed a gentleman. But I just told you he’s dead. So unless ghosts typically return license plates to the Department of Motor Vehicles, I am the logical person to bring back these plates.”
“I don’t know how to deal with this.” The clerk shook her head, as though my husband was the first Maryland car owner who had ever died. “I need to get my supervisor.”
She left me standing at the window, reflecting. I was a clinical psychologist who had worked with the bereaved. I’d known roughly what to expect from grief. What I had not been prepared for was the bureaucracy of death. In addition to the car issues, over the past month I had also dealt with having my children’s and my health care coverage wrongfully canceled, my credit cards frozen, and my land line, wireless phone service, Internet and TV service turned off.
My husband and I were responsible people. We had wills, we had advance medical directives, we diligently stored our passwords on Lastpass. I had no idea that if something—say, our credit cards, or our phone service—was listed in his name, it would not transfer to me easily upon his unimaginable death. Getting each of these services restored took long hours on the phone. The calls seemed like some bizarre form of therapy in which I repeated my sad story over and over to total strangers. My ever expanding list of necessary phone calls felt like one of those songs — “I Know An Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly,” or “This is The House That Jack Built” —one where you keep adding on new phrases until you’re out of breath and forget where you started. I know a young widow who made many calls: to Pepco, Verizon, Comcast, Blue Cross, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, American Express, VISA, Social Security, American Honda, AAA and … Did I really have to contact all of my husband’s former employers to see if he had retirement accounts?
I was a clinical psychologist who had worked with the bereaved. I’d known roughly what to expect from grief. What I had not been prepared for was the bureaucracy of death.
The disembodied customer service voices who answered my calls were, for the most part, as detached and unempathetic as the motor vehicles clerk. They did not ask why I was calling them at four in the morning, why I could not sleep. They seemed unaware that each time I dutifully faxed them the death certificate listing “Septic Shock” in bold block letters as the cause of death, I pictured my husband’s swollen face in an ICU bed, or that each time I repeated what they blithely referred to as the “DOD” or Date of Death, I saw the April sun shining on my children’s tear-streaked faces.
Customer service representatives, in general, tend to read from programmed scripts, and are not known for their kindness or sympathy. It seemed to me, however, that mentioning my relatively young husband’s death provoked responses from them that were colder and more businesslike than usual. They seemed anxious to get me off the phone, to pass me to their supervisor—to be done with me. I suspect they did not want to be reminded that they, too, could lose someone close to them. They did not want to think about death, one of our culture’s biggest taboos.
The one exception was Jose at Verizon. When I told him, after waiting on hold late one evening on a neighbor’s phone, that my Internet and phone line and my children’s cell phones had been shut off because they were in my husband’s name, he offered his sincere apologies. He told me that he remembered how hard the first weeks after his father’s death had been for his mother. “The last thing you should have to be doing right now,” he said, “Is arguing to get your phone service back. You need all your energy just to take care of yourself.” Jose waited patiently while I sobbed into the receiver, then promised me he’d get my phone and Internet service restored by the next morning. He kept his promise.
Window Number Six at the DMV was not looking so promising. I stood by the empty window for fifteen sweaty minutes. Finally, a person, presumably the supervisor, appeared with my husband’s license plates in her hand. “Mrs. Hansell?” she said. “Do you have a copy of your husband’s death certificate?”
I did. April 20th, Septic Shock, all of it. She examined it, typed something on the keyboard, hit “print,” and handed me a receipt. “Have a nice day,” she said.