Life after death: learning to carry on

Women who lose their husbands suddenly are reeling with shock and waves of grief, but they must also find the strength to get themselves through each day, care for children who have lost their fathers and keep the farm running.  |  Getty Images

Two farm women whose husbands died in farm accidents share their experience of how they rebuilt their lives

A farm family is tied together by love and work.

When that bond is torn apart by the sudden death of a family member, the survivors are grief-stricken and the business can be thrown into upheaval.

Maggie Van Camp and Angie Fox lost their husbands in farm accidents. Maggie was 46 with three teenagers when her husband, Brian, died in 2013. Angie was 33 with four children younger than 14 when Jay died in 2011. Both men died just before Christmas and their eldest sons were with them at the time.

While reeling with shock and waves of grief, both women had to find the strength to get themselves through each day, care for children who had lost their fathers and keep the farm running.

Their common losses brought them together as friends who talk to farm families about loss. Together they created a practical list called Because I Love You based on things they learned as they worked through their personal tragedies.

Delivering their message, the two women talked about their experience of rebuilding their lives during a workshop at the Advancing Women in Agriculture conference held in Calgary March 11-12.

Brian and Maggie Van Camp lived in Ontario and worked with his family. They raised chickens and had cropland and shares in the family dairy. Maggie worked part time for Country Guide magazine.

Five years before his death they had gone through a farm succession plan and they became sole owners of the poultry operation.

“Thank God we did. Because of that process, in retrospect, we had things in order. I can’t imagine what it would be like today,” she said.

Jay and Angie Fox were ranchers and were named Manitoba’s outstanding young farmers in 2008. They had talked about funerals, although at the time, Angie thought they were too young to worry about such things. When the time came she knew where he wanted to be buried and what kind of funeral he wanted.

Both families had life insurance and wills but when the accidents happened both women were left reeling with grief and shock. Both relied on support from families and friends to help in the short- and long-term.

“When someone that you love dies, you get lots of advice from other people,” Angie said.

Most people have experienced a death in the family and it is easy for them to relate.

“It is a way people feel they can help you in the process,” she said.

However, life must go on and the farm cannot be ignored.

“Farm operations are very complicated because we cross over between family and the business. Our business is our lifestyle and we work together,” Angie said.

“Ultimately, when someone passes away it becomes very complicated. You are not only losing someone you love, but you are losing management, a farmhand, a key person in the operation,” she said.

Jay was gone but Angie still had to get up every morning, see to her children, feed the cattle and tend to maintenance like dealing with frozen water pumps and doing repairs.

She kept a journal to write down her thoughts.

“Your life carries on. I didn’t want to get out of bed but life continues,” she said. “You have to figure out your new normal and come to the point where you are a functioning human being,” she said.

Maggie and Brian had made some arrangements in advance but when he died, she was numb with shock and was forced to make decisions she did not feel prepared for at the time.

Fortunately, there was life and credit card insurance. All assets were in both their names so she was able to get money to keep the family and farm running.

Maggie thought she had the necessary passwords to bank accounts, cellphones and other documents but in the spring when it was time to seed, no one knew the password to the GPS system on the corn seeder.

At one of her lowest moments she promised herself and friends she would not drink for six months. Alcohol is a depressant and it does not numb the pain of grief. She went to counselling instead.

She learned the importance of asking questions in advance that many prefer to avoid.

Find out if that person wants cremation or a burial, does the family have a cemetery plot, should the casket be open or closed and is organ donation an option?

Maggie took over the poultry operation and developed written standard operating procedures so anyone helping would know how things were to be done. She eventually hired a farm manager, who was able to follow the procedures and keep the farm running efficiently.

She had three friends who were also her lawyer, accountant and financial adviser. She learned a trusted relationship with professionals is critical.

Death is expensive, said Angie.

Funeral costs, lawyers’ and accountants’ fees as well as extra taxes are not in the family budget.

In her opinion, a spouse should have a personal bank account and credit card. She and Jay set up their bank accounts so both would have to sign cheques. When he died, the assets at the bank were frozen and she relied on her personal account to keep things running.

She learned insurance policies do not pay out quickly. She also learned the value of having a family doctor, who could help with some of the information that insurance companies request.

The final decision for both was whether to stay on the farm.

They have moved on and appreciate the small accomplishments and joy of life but they have not left the memories of their husbands behind.

Maggie expanded the farm from 23,000 roasting chickens to 30,000 broilers and hired a farm manager. She is writing a book about her experiences.

Angie also grew the ranch and moved from calving out 800 cows last year to a big expansion to 1,300 cows this year.

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