The high cost of death — and what we can do about it
Everyone knows that the death of a loved one is painful. But we don’t talk about how painful it really is. It isn’t just grief; it is all the additional burdens of loss. The frayed relationships. The lowered productivity at work. The hours upon hours spent doing tedious tasks and filling out endless paperwork. And, of course, the massive financial strain of paying for it all.
If we want to truly understand the impact of loss—and help those affected by it—we shouldn’t be measuring just by the millions of Americans who die each year, but by the billions of dollars it costs their families: in services, in unexpected costs, in unnecessary fees, lost wages, and wasted hours. We should be counting the total impact by the profits lost by businesses, by broken homes and estranged siblings, by increased therapy sessions and prescriptions, by the extra strain placed on whole communities.
Until now, nobody has been tracking these numbers, for the same reason that we are unprepared for these challenges of loss when they come: The cultural taboo against talking about death directly. Americans prefer to talk about death obliquely, in the abstract, in hushed tones. Making us generally unaware of all of the issues that loss brings, and allowing the bureaucracies and industries that mediate these challenges to become hugely inefficient and even, in some cases, predatory.
As part of our mission to change the way the world deals with loss, therefore, we at Empathy set out to determine the real costs of a death in the family, to get clear data about the scope of the problem, and bust open the taboo that has for too long kept it out of the public consciousness.
Thus we are excited to bring you our first annual report on The Cost of Dying, which takes a comprehensive look at all of the demands a death makes of the family—not just the emotional toll of grief, but the practical burden of settling all a loved one’s affairs, and the massive amounts of money, time, effort, productivity, and mental energy it costs them over the course of many months.
We surveyed over 2000 families that had recently experienced a loss, asking them about everything they had to deal with. Among the eye-opening facts we uncovered: It costs the average family nearly $13,000 to handle everything after a loved one’s death, and the whole process takes an average of 13 months – 20 if the estate needs to go through the full probate process. Of our respondents, 52% said dealing with the loss harmed their work performance, and 57% experienced clinical physical or psychological symptoms of stress related to their loss.
“It is important to realize how much we underestimate the logistics of loss. We think of a phone call here, a paper that needs to be signed there—but it’s so much more. It’s months upon months of phone calls, returning calls, getting to the right department, and signing papers, all while contending with intense emotions, and often an inability to fully focus.” So writes David Kessler, world renowned grief expert and Empathy’s Chief Empathy Officer. Along with the data presented in the report, we have included insights from Kessler and other experts in the bereavement field, who share their thoughts on what we can learn from these numbers, and how we can use them to reconsider how best to serve families experiencing loss, as individuals, as organizations, and as a society.
In addition, we are gratified to be able to include the contribution of Goldman Sachs, bringing the focus of one of the world’s preeminent financial institutions to this neglected topic.
A crucial part of our efforts is raising awareness of bereavement as an issue that is not simply on the fringes of human experience, but central to and ever-present in our lives. For far too many, COVID-19 has been a terrible reminder that death and loss are all around us—but it also represents an opportunity to shift public perception.
We all have ways of helping this shift along, whether that means being more open about our own experiences with death, or reaching out to those dealing with a death in the family. It can mean bringing this awareness into our professional lives, urging our workplaces to adopt more sensible bereavement policies for both employees and customers. And we certainly hope it will mean finding ways to work with us at Empathy, as we build support systems that meet bereaved families where they are, and as we find solutions for companies looking to bring this support and this awareness into their own corporate cultures.
Loss doesn’t skip any of us, and ignoring this fact only serves to deepen the pain it causes and the scars it leaves. The more we talk about it, the more understanding and support families will gain from every side: from friends, relatives, employers and colleagues, funeral professionals, hospices, life insurers, and more. Only then can we hope to have a lasting effect on the true cost of dying—its cost in money, in time, in stress, in harmed productivity and strained interpersonal bonds—to lessen its load for all families, everywhere.
We encourage everyone to read the report, as everyone can take responsibility for—and reduce the burden on—bereaved families in their own way, from employers whose employees will at some point experience loss, to workers in end-of-life fields, to those who might offer understanding and guidance to a colleague, friend, or neighbor. You are invited to learn just how large this issue is today, and to come join us in our mission as we change the way the world deals with loss.