MONEY & ME
Episode #14: Emily Cummin
When the worst happens….
Bereavement, grief, loss and your finances.
Caroline chats to Emily Cummin, the CEO and co-founder of grief support platform, Untangle. Emily talks about how grief can impact people in various ways, not just emotionally but also financially. When dealing with unexpected life changes, people can be overwhelmed with uncertainty and the pressure of decision-making.
Hi, Emily, welcome to the podcast. How are you?
Hi. Thank you for having me. I’m good, thanks.
So I wanted you to come on the podcast because what you’re doing with your business Untangle, I think is really, really important. And I also think that the name Untangle is such an apt name for supporting people through grief and the grieving process. Can you tell us a bit more about what you do?
Yeah, sure, thanks. Yeah, so we make it easier for people to rebuild their life after a loss. We started with bereavement, but we see lots of parallels with things like divorce, retirement, big life changes that come with lots of practical challenges, and also lots of emotion and grief. So we provide emotional, social and practical support in one place, and we guide people through all the steps after loss. So for something like a bereavement we might help with, you know, registering the death, and then having a funeral and then applying for probate if you need it. And then also connecting with a peer support group and a therapy provider, and really holding people’s hand through that incredibly overwhelming and stressful time of their life. And so that their life, you know, they can then go on to live a whole life where they’ve got the right financial support and social support in place.
Where did the name come from? Because I do think it’s such a perfect descriptor for what it’s like after you lose somebody. And there’s all the different strands that you have to unpick and untangle. Where did it come from?
It was actually Emma my co founder who came up with the name. But yeah, it was very much that we kind of used the analogy that your life is really tangled, and there’s just so many things that you have to think about, and actually we want to help you kind of straighten out those threads, and turn them into nice, neat lines, if you like, never works like that in reality, but that’s the kind of feeling that we’re aiming for. And I think people feel very isolated and very overwhelmed after a loss. And if we can reduce that and help people feel a bit more in control and a bit more connected, then that’s the success for us.
Both you and Emma suffered the loss of a loved one, is that what sparked this for you?
Yeah, very much so. So Emma’s dad died about three and a half years ago from stage four cancer. And there’s no- stage four cancer is terminal. And so she went through this big change with her mum and sister, they had to make lots of big decisions, at you know, very pivotal point in her life. And kind of similarly for me, it’s slightly different but my parents got divorced and around the same time my grandpa died. And I kind of watched my family go through these big changes, there’s not a lot of support, and kind of realise that, you know, there wasn’t a lot of support around these big changes, you have people like wedding planners, we have lots of programmes, especially more recently in the tech world around birthing and new mothers, there isn’t really for these big negative life changes that are so impactful. So Emma and I kind of got together and started chatting about the fact that we both have gone through these big transitions and didn’t feel like there was a lot of support and wanted to do something about it. And basically make sure that no other family has to go through one of these big life transitions alone. And that’s where we started.
I mean, it’s a really big, intense thing that you’re taking on, you know? At Lifetise we talk a lot- and we’re basically built on helping people work through major life events, whether it’s buying a home, having kids, but I will say we’ve started with the more positive ones. Yet death is one of the ones that has the biggest impact on us, but it’s not really talked about.
Yeah, the more I work in it the more it shocks me. But death is such a taboo. I mean, you can talk about almost anything with people, but you talk about death, and everyone goes quiet and gets really awkward. You know, I hear it time and time again, in our support groups that people come and they say, one of the topics that comes up all the time is how kind of disappointed people are in friends and family and colleagues because actually, people just pretend like it hasn’t happened because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. And so they just avoid the whole situation. And that makes it even more isolating for the person going through it. Because it’s such a taboo and you think oh, no one wants to touch that and think about that. It’s amazing though, because it’s the only certainty in life, we know we’re all going to go through it. We’re all going to experience it. And actually, if anything, it’s one of the biggest challenges that we should be tackling and actually making this really difficult period of people’s lives just a tiny bit less challenging. And it’s so overwhelming in the moment. And then you have to- we worked out that on average, you have to call 40 different providers in the first month after bereavement, I mean, that is just so much admin to do. It’s like a full time job. And you’re doing that when someone’s just having to deal with a massive loss. It’s crazy, you know?
You’re absolutely right, there is that weird period immediately after you lose somebody, where your life now becomes weird death admin. You’re still generally in that sort of shock stage of grief and yet, you have to figure out what to do, where all of their money is, you have to work out who’s been paying the bills if you’re a couple, you’ve got to organise funeral arrangements. So what have you found? Do people tend to come to you first for the emotional side of things, or has it been for the practical side?
It’s been a mix, a lot of the men coming more for the practical help, and then actually find themselves really benefiting from the social support. And then on the other side, women coming for the emotional support, and then realising that a lot of what’s driving their stress or their inability to sleep is the fact that actually they’re suddenly having to manage household bills before. And obviously, that’s quite a gendered example that is generally true. And actually, it’s interesting because female widows, apparently, are the people most hard hit financially by a bereavement. It takes them the longest amount of time to get back to their financial state, if you like, from before their bereavement as well. So that’s statistically true. It’s been incredible to see and, I’ve facilitated support groups with grown men who are like, ‘I don’t have a space to talk about this in my normal life, I’m trying to be strong for my kids, I’ve got to get on with things, I’ve never had to manage my household before, I’ve never had to take my kids to school, you know, this is my first time doing all this stuff and actually, I just want to have a cry.’ An example of this, actually, Emma, always says her mom- you know, when you get a letter basically addressed to either ‘the late this person’ or quite often wrongly addressed to that person, as if they’re still alive. That’s a really practical thing you have to solve, but it’s also a really emotional process. So yeah, they’re just really linked is what we found and is why we bring both types of support together.
You know, setting up these amazing- because I think you do them weekly, do you? Your support groups for people who just want to chat. How do you facilitate it? And has it changed with a pandemic – were you doing them in person, and now you’ve had to go online?
Yes, so now we offer two different things. So we have an app where we match people into groups of up to about 20 people who’ve had a similar experience of loss. So if you’ve lost a parent in the last couple of months, and it was sudden, then you’ll be matched with other people that have had that experience. And, you know, everyone’s experience is unique and different, but it helps people relate. And that’s a chat based app, it’s like a Whatsapp group almost. And we facilitate those, and we prompt those groups. And then we do once a week, Zoom support groups as well. And they started off- they used to be in person, so we used to meet up in pubs in a pre-COVID world. And you’d sit in the pub, and we didn’t want it to be like a kind of AA group in a church hall somewhere, we wanted it to- because grief is a part of everyday life. And so we’d be sitting in the pub and half the table would be crying their eyes out, and the other half would be laughing and chatting about something completely different. And then it would switch. And, I think it’s interesting doing them online now, because they are a little bit more focused, you know, the conversation maybe doesn’t switch so much into kind of normal, everyday topics. But also, it’s much easier for people to attend. So we’ve got people in America, the UK, in Spain that come to the groups. And it’s really nice, because you can just check in from your bedroom, come for an hour. And I think for a lot of people, they become almost like a ritual. They do them on Sunday mornings, they come in Sunday mornings and chat.
It must be actually very rewarding for you to know that you’re providing that space for people, particularly as people right now are a bit more isolated, might not have friends and family around in the same way. When people are grieving as you said at the beginning, our tendency culturally I think in the UK is that we step back usually from people and for awkwardness. And we don’t know what to say. Possibly even more so at the moment because we’re not seeing people as much, we’re probably not checking in on people as much, so those people who are going through some type of loss and at the moment that could be anything, like you say, from death, from divorce, loss of jobs, there’s a lot that goes in to that as well. Because jobs for a lot of people are so much of their identity, you’re providing quite a vital service for people at the moment who wouldn’t just naturally have other people around them that they can talk to in a more casual way. So providing some structure around it must be really, really helpful.
And it’s interesting, what we’ve seen as this kind of presence of grief in wider society is bringing up a lot of past grief for people. So we’ve got people coming to the groups who have maybe never dealt with the loss of a parent 15 years ago. And actually, the absence of normal coping mechanisms plus this heightened awareness of grief is really bringing that out for people. Yeah, so it’s been really good in a way that people have got this space. A lot of people say they quite like the fact that they can access the support from home, rather than having to travel somewhere to speak to people.
Do you think overall that COVID has made people think more about death and loss, and maybe talk about it more with family members, with parents, with friends?
I’d like to think so. But then what I hear in all our groups and from our community, it doesn’t really sound like it. If anything, everyone’s like, well, I’ve got my own grief now, so I’m not going to talk about it. I think we’re so inherently scared of negative- people like to ‘other’ people that have had a bereavement, or people have got divorce, because if you ‘other’ it, you distance yourself from it, and therefore it can’t happen to you. But I guess the reality is that death is much more present for people. So I think people are being forced to talk about it, but I think our natural tendency is still to avoid it. It was interesting, so pretty much the entirety of my mum’s family recently just had COVID, including my grandma. And thankfully, they actually all survived. But it was one of those moments where you suddenly do have a conversation of- you know, my mum sent me a picture of her will, and my sister was like, ‘oh, Mum, don’t do that!’ And I was like, well, thank you, I appreciate this information. Because actually, it’s really important to talk about and, I want to know how she wants- what she wants for her funeral. And also if she can make it easier for me by us having these conversations upfront, then it makes it easier for everyone. So I think it is important to talk about it, but there’s not a nice or easy way to bring it up and I think that’s part of the challenge.
Yeah, I mean, we’re pretty terrible in this country for being able to talk about all of these type of subjects, you know, money generally is one that is-
Yeah, that was just thinking that!
So, when you add death or loss, or any of these additional, really bad things on top of it, most of us run for the hills, don’t we? Because we don’t want to acknowledge the prospect of it even happening, we don’t want to have to face up- quite interesting, isn’t it, because you will see with older couples that they do do a lot of this planning, you know, as they start to get 70s, and 80s. And you probably see it in the work that you do, there is a kind of pragmatism, that takes over where they do make sure they’ve got wills, they do make sure that funeral costs and things are at least part paid for if they can. You know, they’ve definitely had those conversations, but they’ve also taken steps to put arrangements in place for what will happen at some point. What will be interesting is whether we start to see that trickle down into younger people thinking about some of these things. And I know that within the space that you operate, there are other companies who have made the process of getting a will very, very simple, trying to bring some of these conversations and the ability to do some of these tasks, as you say, into people’s homes, make it very, very easy for them, normalise it. Hopefully makes it easier for us to have the conversations because the structure is there for us to have them.
Yeah, and it’s interesting. It’s nuts because the basic when you think about just the financial and legal and also therapy costs after bereavement that’s around £10,500. And then you start adding things like if there’s an inheritance and you need to pay inheritance tax, and also things like life insurance, and then it goes up to about £15,000. So it’s quite an expensive period. The other thing that kind of shocks me is also, on average, household net incomes go down by 36% after you’ve had a bereavement, so not only have you got a lot of costs, but suddenly your income drops as well. And that’s a combination of a loss of potentially another person, but also, your own productivity costs go down, because you’re struggling. So it’s a really big, big period of someone’s life. And that’s just the very practical things. And then a lot of people have guilt around, you know, I didn’t know what that person wanted, or I want to do right by them as well. So really, people spend that much money on services that are pretty poor that they’re having to shop around for as well.
I mean, those numbers that you’ve just said, are enormous. I don’t know how many people just casually listening would know that it is that expensive. £10,000 to £15,000 is a huge amount of money for people to find at difficult times. And I know that if there is money in the deceased estate, you know, if there is money that you can effectively pay for funeral costs and other things from that, but still it’s a huge- for some people, that’s the same as a house deposit. And all of a sudden, you now have to find that money in a time that you’re grieving. It’s huge amounts of stress. Do you find with the people that you’re helping? Does it come as a shock to them?
Yeah, very much so. And what’s also shocking is that people don’t know, in terms of like, for example, if you notify the bank, what does that mean? Are the accounts frozen? Are your household bills going to be frozen? And how you actually locate someone’s accounts? And is there enough money? Is there enough cash in the estate to pay inheritance tax to then get your inheritance? So there’s all these really complicated nuances as well, that are really stressful for people. And I think your description of people having to find money is a really good one, because that’s exactly what happens. Like, you end up having to pull money from friends and family, or people take out loans and potentially get in debt if it’s not the right loan. So yeah, it’s pretty shocking. And there are ways around it, you know, with the right education and the right information, it makes a lot easier for people. People knowing their rights, knowing the law, knowing what services are on offer, that helps as well. But yeah, people are really surprised. And what’s interesting is often we interview people that have been through this process, a couple years down the line, and they look back, and they’re like, that was really expensive. And it’s almost like, you just have to go through it. And then you come out the other side. And you’re, you’re still paying off debt and things. Because at the time you just- and with funerals, for example, you want to do what’s right by that person that’s died, you want to get them the nicest funeral, and so people end up getting into debt to do what they think is almost like an act of love for that person.
Yeah, that really resonates. I remember when my grandmother died, at the time, I don’t know how, but I was the only one in the extended family that happened to have enough cash in the bank to be able to pay for the funeral. So I remember, one of my uncle’s said, look, obviously you’ll get it back after probates, but can you basically front up the money to be able to pay for the funeral, and then you’ll get it back in a few months time. And it is because the probate process can be so long, you are often having to find money up front, and then you will eventually get it back but it’s not for a few months- until a few months later. As the eldest grandkid, all of a sudden, I was the one that had the money to actually be able to pay for the funeral. And I think you make another good point, which is, it can be very, very difficult I think, when you’re doing it in the immediate aftermath of a loss, to work out what you might actually want to spend on it. In wanting to do right by your loved one, you may end up committing more money to it, than perhaps you actually can afford to. I’m sure there are many, many situations where people end up going for the more expensive options that are presented to them.
And this also goes back to the taboo of death, right? I imagine a lot of people actually would say to their loved ones, you know, give me a simple send off and I’d rather you spend that money on like a celebration of life or a party for the family. I mean, every culture is different and everyone’s different, but that lack of communication causes- lots of people have anxiety. We spoke to someone the other day who was like, I didn’t know what knickers my mum wanted to be buried in. And that’s- I actually had this chat with my mom, she’s like, I want to be buried in my Bridget Jones pants! Just so you know, I like to look great on my deathbed! But I think it’s important to have this conversation because they do prevent problems down the line. But also, basically the whole process after a loss- because we don’t want to think about it, we don’t want to talk about it, we don’t plan for it. So you know, no ones plans get divorced, no one plans- we do die, but people don’t necessarily plan for it. So what it means is that actually, when it happens, you’re suddenly having to do lots of things you’ve never had to think about. And it’s that process, that then means that people are overwhelmed and make decisions that they look back on and think why did I make those decisions. And you don’t need to think about everything in the first week, like, you can take a chunk at a time. And people don’t know that as well that there’s no legal requirements around certain- people think, oh, gosh, I need to close all their accounts in the first week. That’s not true. And actually by taking that pressure away from people and saying, just think about this this week, these are your options, these are the decisions you need to make, we can kind of eliminate some of that stress and that unnecessary spend as well.
Yeah. And there are tonnes of similarities actually, between what you do and what we do. Because it’s the same thing. We’re trying to take these big, complex life events that have both a financial element and then a to do list, tasks that we have to do. And really simplify it so that it’s not overwhelming. And also feed it to people in a step by step way, so that they’re not confronted with all of it, they don’t have this massive cognitive overload of not even knowing where to start. So that’s what we get a lot of. So I remember when we rebuilt our Homefinder tool to help people figure out how they could afford to buy a home. And everyone’s really excited because it shows them what’s possible. And that’s an amazing thing to be able to show people who perhaps thought, Oh, I might not be able to get on the property ladder, all of a sudden, they’re like, okay, it might take me a couple of years, but here’s my plan, how I can afford to do it. But then we’d obviously missed a massive bit, which was, okay, now I can see what I have to do, but how do I actually do it? Where do I start? And so we realised that just showing people the affordability, the financial side of it, wasn’t enough. We actually had to help them through the step by step process to simplify and make it much easier. And it sounds like that’s what you’re doing so well. And particularly yours, you’re doing it at a time where people desperately need somebody to kind of handhold them and show them what to do.
Although saying that, I’m starting to think about buying a house so I’ll definitely need a lot of hand holding, you’ve got a future customer! Because yeah, it does feel really unattainable I think for most people getting on the property ladder as well. So yeah, these big- it’s funny because these feel like the kind of- a lot of technology I think is being built around the ‘nice to haves’ rather than the ‘have to haves’. And it feels like the beginning of people recognising and actually building solutions for the necessary moments in life is really important. And it kind of excites me, and I know it excites the team, this idea that- I know that’s a weird word to use around the taboo of loss, but actually, the points when people really, really need help, and the things that are difficult and have a huge impact, you know, buying a house, having a baby, having debt, getting divorced, all of these life events, the things that fundamentally impact people’s quality of life, and not just now but in the long term. And so being able to support people through those feels like really important work I guess.
That leads nicely to my next question, actually, because here you are running a business that is all about loss. And you’re interacting with people who’ve experienced loss, you’re facilitating groups where they’re talking about their grief. That’s a lot for you and your team to process. How do you protect your mental health?
Yes, good question. I’m quite rigorous with my own mental health. I had quite bad anxiety when I was late teens, and I think I’ve built kind of my own toolkit, a mixture of running and exercise. I do therapy every week. And I try and make sure that, it’s not possible all weekends, but some weekends, I’ll make sure that I switch over like with the support groups, we take it in turns to facilitate so that we have weekends off. And then as a team we have a safeguarding lead who’s a trained psychotherapist. And you know, that’s partly to protect and look after our community, we have very robust safeguarding policies in place. But also she runs once a month team- I guess group, peer support facilitated therapy, I don’t know what you want to call it. But where we talk about the things that have come up, and how people dealt with them, and anything that they’re finding challenging, because, I mean, a lot of the team have experienced loss that’s why they’re motivated by what we’re doing. But it does come with kind of a heightened, I guess, emotional investment as well. And then we also set a wellbeing goal each of us every sprint, so my goal this week, this sprint, I think was to go for five runs, which, it’s just like a commitment. And everyone has a different goal, like Emma’s was to read a book a week, and that’s been quite nice. And we just try and create an environment where we can all talk about what comes up. So we kind of celebrate the positives as well. Actually, all of us, I think, appreciate the fact that when we have people in the groups saying, oh, thank you so much, or in our one to ones, as well saying, actually, this has really helped me. And that for us is amazing, like, we helped someone get sick pay the other day who had a bereavement. And like that is really having amazing impact. And so I think, although it’s heavy, it’s really life affirming as well.
Yeah, I can see that I’m definitely going to steal your wellbeing goals for our team. Our team would love that, so thank you! And you touched on a point a minute ago about helping somebody get sick pay for bereavement. And I know that you’ve been involved in a campaign because right now there isn’t any statutory pay for people taking time out for loss.
It’s actually so shocking. So, Sue Ryder is running a campaign, and we’re supporting them, to get statutory paid bereavement leave in the UK. So actually, the only thing that was introduced, I was looking this up beforehand, is a law called Jack’s Law for parents who’ve had a child basically die. And you can get up to two weeks paid bereavement leave. And shockingly, this is the longest period of statutory paid bereavement leave worldwide. So I mean, that is making the UK’s offer the most generous in the world. It was like- and that’s just if you lose a child, I mean, I say “just” as in all other bereavements not included. So, Sue Ryder are running a campaign to, and you can sign up to campaign to get the government to introduce statutory paid bereavement leave. And yeah, we’ve supported that. And it’s shocking that- I mean, some of our community has literally had an ultimatum, which is come into work the day after a loss, or be fired. And that just is outrageous. And the sick pay was an example of someone who’s basically suffering from depression as a result of bereavement. They’re not entitled to bereavement leave, they are entitled to sick pay. So that’s kind of the, I guess, the workaround at the moment, but yeah, people should sign up because it’s a shocking, shocking thing. And especially given, I think everyone realises with COVID, that this- I think none of us can ignore how important and impactful something like this is.
I’m slightly speechless, which I appreciate, listeners, is not ideal on a podcast. Anyone who has been through grief knows that it is definitely not a two week turnaround. Anyone who’s been through grief knows that if they go back to work, if they drag themselves back to work, then they’re going to be sat there feeling pretty hollow, and shaky. And they’re going to be massively unproductive. So I can’t believe that. I mean, I hope that there are employers who have much more generous policies. But yeah, I’m absolutely shocked at that, too. So we’ll put the details of the campaign in the show notes so that anyone who wants to support it can do it. What’s the most, I want to end on a positive, what’s the most rewarding part of doing this for you?
I feel so grateful to have the opportunity to be doing this work. I think for me, there’s a couple of things like when I look at users’ messages and people saying thank you for the help that we’ve provided. And also people talking in our peer support groups, that kind of reminds me why we’re doing this. I actually ran a partner loss support group, like a Zoom one last night. And at the end, we always end with what helps you, and a couple of people said, you know, these groups helped me and it’s a space unlike any others to come and talk about things, and honestly, at that point it was eight in the evening, you know, I’d done a 12/13 hour work day and it’s actually a really- I came away with, I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to be doing this work.
Thanks so much, Emily. This has been fantastic.
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