Loss and Learning – Farm Style

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Common sense tells me that death happens to us all. The old adage, “No one gets out of this world alive” is very true.

But in October 2014, death made a sudden and unexpected, horrific entrance into MY world, my comfortable, easy existence, my heart just shattered.  It tilted my world (and the world of my children and many family and friends) off its axis… and it hasn’t been right since.

Experiencing the sudden death of a loved one is, I suspect, like taking a huge dose of chemotherapy drugs. It changes your DNA… who you are… makes you question the person you think you are… it makes you feel physically ill, you hurt all over… and you know your life will never be the same. 

During my whole married life (37 years), my farmer husband was happy to be in control, never asked me to help in the office, (occasionally he would put a document under my nose, please sign here… ), only occasionally helped with some sheep work – the full extent of my farming involvement I am embarrassed to say.  My world was home, children, craftwork, cooking, supporting a very busy and very energetic (picture the bouncy Energiser bunny) husband when I was asked – just SO happy to do my thing, and he gave me the freedom to pursue the things that interested me.  In many respects I had my head in the sand.

Why am I sharing this unpleasant topic with you, friends? To spare you some future pain and tremendous frustration.

You see, farmers keep all sorts of information in their heads. My husband, at 63 years old, knew lots of STUFF. He’d been running the farm since he was 21 years old, and he was extremely successful. He knew about how Local Government worked (many years on the Cunderdin Council and was Shire President at the time of his death), he knew about music (a lifetime of playing keyboard, in bands, for church, for Quairading Curtain Raisers musical productions), he knew about running the local IGA (many years on the board), he knew about gliding (pilot for many years and many of those years as a Committee member of the club here in Cunderdin) and he knew farming.

Now, all that information had gone… disappeared. Unavailable.  Irretrievable. Bank accounts, internet site passwords, ideas of what to do next, how to run a farm, how to keep our finances from tilting us over the irretrievable edge – everything. We had to start at the beginning.  Julie Andrews tells me it’s a very good place to start! 

Decisions had to be made. ASAP. Many meetings followed with the bank, accountant, stockbroker, trying to learn about budgeting, Agrimaster (gave up and hired a young cousin to be my occasional office manager). Agrimaster and I are not friends.  My brain is not wired for numbers. Give me colour and texture and fabric and…  MUSIC! 

I chose to stay and run the farm with the assistance of our farm-hand who’d been working with Rod for over 40 years. He has become the Farm Manager and has kept us going since the day Rod died.  We now have a very good team.  I chose to gift my son time overseas – to grieve, to heal, an extended long service leave before he returns to a lifetime of hard work and responsibility.

Before he left, my son and I went through the process of trying to get everything in order, and experienced the unimaginable frustration of trying gain entry to many farming sites, utility sites, trying to streamline all accounts and make it simple. Every person on the end of the phone said the same thing – “Sorry I am not authorised to deal with you- you are not Rod.” Argh! I am not normally a violent person, but I admit to wanting to hurt someone

So here are some things I wish I had done before Rod passed:

  1. Have THE discussion. What would happen if I/you/we suddenly died? It’s not being morbid, it’s vital.
  2. Make a file of information your family need to know in case the unthinkable occurs. Write it down! Sudden death is not convenient. It does not happen when you expect it, nor will you or your family be ready for it.  Update it annually.
  3. Add another family member’s name with companies you regularly deal with – just in case.   

Example: Trying to get utility accounts streamlined I had to supply copies of death certificate, probate and the will.  For Telstra I even had to write a letter to myself on my business letterhead (who has farm letterheads?) giving myself authority to act on behalf of Rod.  I have lost count of the times I’ve had to supply all these documents to companies. Water, power and phone bills for 3 separate parts of the one farm, all had different titles, addresses and owners. That’s how it has always been. My husband had no problem with them, he knew what went where and how and why. I didn’t.

Everything is HARD when you are grieving. Even buying a mobile phone, I had a melt-down in the shop, a lovely young man pulled me aside and supplied a drink of water, a chair, and some tissues – I think I was scaring the other customers. All he did was ask me a few questions I didn’t know the answer to.

It’s hard to THINK clearly when you are grieving.  True story – the day I replaced my old, unreliable car, I drove off in my beautiful new shiny car… without  paying for it… My focus was on just getting home. They did contact me, and I did pay for it – the beauty of buying local.

I could find no farm diaries that supplied information on what to do and when, so I made up my own. Drawing on last year’s budget gave me insight to more specific timing and costings. Every bit of information I could garner went into my diary. I have two books. One – a diary which tells me WHEN it all happens and how much it may cost, and the other book is a work-book, I write down any meeting minutes, any notes that would be helpful, divided up by topic, and HOW to go about accomplishing a task. These will be handed over to my son when he returns. Just because you have done something once, doesn’t mean you have learnt it. Grief hangs a veil over everything, including learning. I refer to my books often.

Oh, to have had a “Dummies Guide to Farming”. A short study course for the clueless and inexperienced. Oh, to have had the support of a group of people who’d been through the same situation as myself. To chat together, to share stories, to encourage each other and to cry together. 

Losing my extraordinary husband and taking over a farm with no experience has been the most difficult time of my life. Still clueless in many respects, but maybe not as clueless as I used to be.  Farming/business couples, please have THE discussion, and start writing your ‘Just in Case’ file.

I often wonder if Rod would give his blessing to the style of management we have adopted. It’s slightly different to his. We miss him.

18 Comments
  1. Heartwrenching Wendy, but something we try and talk to our all clients about as so important. Would you mind if we accessed your article to help when talking with clients? Unfortunately too many of them bury their heads in the sand thinking it will never happen to them. Wishing you and your family the very best.

  2. Wendy, may heart goes out to you. My very elderly Mum died October last year, and I have been sorting out her financial affairs and her ‘stuff’. It has been hard enough for me; we had her affairs in order before she died. Yes, memory and learning ability both take a holiday when we are in grief. It is like wading through mud sometimes, trying to resolve everything. I hope you can stop and give yourself a pat on the back sometimes and celebrate what you have accomplished so far. Well done.

  3. Thank you for sharing that with us Wendy. Rod was a wonderful man, and you are a wonderful person also. Thinking of you in these hard times xo

  4. Wow this is such an insight to life and loss, thank you for sharing, 18 months before my dad died I do the unthinkable and made his sit and give me all the information I needed should the unthinkable happen, when it did happen after the dust had settled it made my life so much easier, he has contacted those concerned and authorized me to act on his behalf, it was a hard conversation to have but so worth while, thank you for sharing oyour journey I hope you and your family find peace and …. may those you deal with make the journey easier and less stressful xxx

  5. An amazing account of a traumatic experience. Scared the shit out of me and my bestie (husband). Better pull our fingers out and start putting pen to paper. We will also have to start naming the paddocks instead of “that one and that one over there”! Thank you and the very best of luck for the future.

  6. My heart goes out to you…. Thank you for sharing your experience… Wishing you all the very best ahead. You have done an amazing job so far… Sending love and prayers…

  7. Wendy, this is excellent advise. My father has just passed away & we are having some of the same problems. Whilst my Mother is partner in the farm she has a touch of dementia.
    I salute your strength and willingness to learn and carry on for your family. Good luck to you all xx

  8. Thank you so much for sharing Wendy. Would love to share this in our local newsletter as it’s good advice for all. Can you let me know if this would be OK and if it is how you’d like me to do it? i.e. by link with a brief outline or the whole article and link. Best wishes for the years ahead, I bet you are doing a great job.

    • Emma i would be very happy for you to share the article.. am very keen to encourage people to have THE conversation. X

  9. Rod was always an inspiration to me, now Wendy you are the inspiration. We find strength when we least expect it and I have no doubt he would be so very proud of his darling wife and how you are empowering other farming families with this sound advice and insight!!

  10. You are such a treasure to share what you went through and to try and lesson the pain for others. So giving. So Wendy Carter. Faith with deeds xxx

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