How Citibank and other bureaucratic institutions make grieving for family members harder

Dealing with institutions is an inevitable part of handling a death. But common decency tells us that someone who is grieving deserves care, not combat.
Illustration of woman wading through a sea of paperwork toward a light.
Jamiel Law / for NBC News
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By Maggie Mulqueen, psychologist

The tears finally came seven months later, on Christmas Day. My mother died on May 16, 2019. It was a surprise, as death always is, even though she was 94.

We live in a culture where human resource policies dictate how much time one is entitled to stop and grieve. People often talk of getting through the first year, the first holidays, birthdays and anniversaries, as the key to managing a loss. After a year, the implied expectation is that a healthy person has moved on, and certainly the rest of the world is entitled to.

No one could have prepared me for the protracted, painful experience of mounting a campaign against CitiBank to get what was rightfully mine.

But as a psychologist, I know how little the calendar has to do with the trajectory of grief. And how little our culture pays attention to one of the central burdens of grief — the sheer amount of work there is to do when someone dies.

Some of this work can actually be helpful. For instance, getting up each day to care for children who need support or sorting through a lifetime’s worth of treasures can provide purpose. And planning a funeral or going to synagogue may even be healing.

But there’s another type of work that thwarts rather than allows one to grieve: navigating bureaucracies to settle the estate of a loved one. For me, that work lasted 225 days, from the week after my mother’s death until Jan. 9, 2020, when I engaged in a seemingly quixotic battle with CitiBank to get my mother’s investment funds transferred.

Sadly, given how common experiences such as mine are, it is woefully unfair to start “the clock” on someone’s allotted time to grieve when there is so much work to be done and institutions have the power to stand in the way of people rather than support them at such a tender time.

My mother was a Head Start teacher for 25 years in New York City. I was the executor and sole beneficiary of her estate, which contained a pension with the Teachers’ Retirement System, an investment account with CitiBank and a co-op she owned in Manhattan. Having handled my father’s estate 30 years earlier, I thought I was prepared for what lay ahead.

In fact, no one could have prepared me for the protracted, painful experience of mounting a campaign against CitiBank to get what was rightfully mine. I wasn’t prepared for the necessity to fight, on an almost daily basis, the insensitivity and ineptitude of a large banking institution. Day after day, tilting against the windmills of a dozen or more employees at the end of an 800 number, kept my sadness suppressed. There was no time to cry or reflect on the profound impact of having no living parents.

Instead, I experienced delays, run-arounds, contradictory instructions and all the other types of petty mistreatment that make people hate dealing with bureaucratic institutions. The trouble began, coincidentally or not, when I made clear to the bank that I wanted to move the money to another company rather than keep it with Citibank. From then on, every day I was told a different story, and every day promises were broken.

Each phone call to CitiBank left me hollowed out and exhausted. I am a good fighter and skilled with words. I spend my days in my psychotherapy practice listening to people and trying to understand them. My version of listening is vastly different from CitiBank’s, however. In order to truly understand someone, you need to slow down and let them express themselves, not cut them off with a perfunctory, rote answer. So whenever I was told by a representative in a monotone voice, “I understand,” I responded by saying, “Please don’t tell me you understand, when you have not listened to what I am saying.”

The problem was not one of “too big to fail,” but rather “too big to care.” There was no accountability. I was asked multiple times if I wanted to register a complaint. So I did, multiple times. Asking someone to retell the same details over and over is one of the worst ways to support someone who is grieving. Making empty promises is probably a close runner-up. And despite this invitation to document my complaints, there was no follow-up.

(Only when I let Citibank know I was writing this piece did I get a response. A public affairs official wrote, "We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience and delay at such a difficult time and will review the matter to see how we can improve our service going forward.")

I was frantically trying to get the transfer of my mother’s investment account resolved by the end of 2019 in order to avoid filing taxes on it for an additional year. At the time of her death in May, that seemed like a reasonable goal, but by December, I was losing hope. On Christmas Eve, after an especially upsetting phone call with a representative from the bank, I found myself at the post office sending a certified letter with instructions to transfer the money from CitiBank to my Fidelity account as the representative had directed me to do.

We live in a culture where human resource policies dictate how much time one is entitled to stop and grieve.

For the previous 20 years, I had spent Christmas Eve picking my mother up from the bus station after her trip from New York to my home in Boston. Never could I have imagined that instead of being at the bus station, I would be waiting in line at the post office. And what I longed for was to be home in front of my Christmas tree — decorated, as usual, with ornaments my mother had bought on her travels over the years: a cloth English Bobby, a handsewn Mozart from Salzburg, a wooden Pinocchio from Italy.

Dealing with institutions is an inevitable part of handling someone’s death. From the phone company to Social Security to credit card companies, there is an enormous amount of paperwork to manage. But common decency tells us that someone who is grieving deserves care, not combat.

On Christmas Day, the bank was closed and I gave myself a break from doing estate work. As I sat down in front of my Christmas tree, my shoulders sagged and tears started to flow. Finally, it seemed, I had time to grieve.