Surely it’s time for EVERY company, including Virgin Media, to teach staff about grief?

After my husband died, Virgin Media imposed debt collectors on me… surely it’s time for EVERY company to teach their staff about grief?

Traumatic: Stacey Heale, with her late husband Greg and their children Dali and Bay, felt terribly disappointed

Having the means to pay off your mortgage in your 30s sounds like a dream scenario. But when you can only do it because a loved one has just found out they have terminal cancer, it’s a bittersweet experience. This happened to me almost six years ago – and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

My husband Greg Gilbert, then frontman of the indie band Delays, was just 39 when he was told he had incurable bowel cancer – and the only medical option available was chemotherapy. At the time we had two young daughters, Dali, three, and Bay, one, and our house in Southampton was on the market because we had outgrown it.

The only crumb of comfort we could hold on to was a critical illness insurance policy which we were told would wipe out the mortgage in case Greg or I suffered a serious illness like a heart attack, stroke or cancer.

Taking out the policy when we bought the two bedroom property was the only way to get the loan. I almost canceled the plan just before Greg was diagnosed because I was on maternity leave and the money was running out. I also thought such policies were unnecessary for young people like Greg and me. How wrong I was – and how glad I didn’t cancel.

When the police were paid I took the check for just over £100,000 to the local HSBC branch so I could pay off the mortgage – the loan being with the bank.

I was asked for three pieces of photo ID, something I didn’t have on me – or even possess. I was told I would have to provide this information – “You’ll just have to sort it out.”

I was so upset with the casual way I was treated that I sat on the floor in the middle of the bank and cried in despair. Eventually the branch manager appeared and escorted me to an upstairs suite where I was offered coffee and tissues.

When I explained my situation, he accessed his computer and said, “It’s done – the mortgage balance is paid.

When I was leaving the bank, the employee I had initially dealt with apologized. He said he didn’t know what to do because it didn’t match any of his training.

This was only my first experience of the poor procedures some companies have in place for dealing with customers who want sensitive issues addressed.

When Greg passed away last September, I dreaded dealing with the family’s financial affairs – canceling policies, changing names on accounts and sorting out issues. I was right to worry.

I spent hours on the phone to Revenue & Customs explaining why Greg hadn’t filed a self-assessment tax return – he was in hospice. He had imposed fines on her totaling hundreds of pounds for failing to complete the declaration.

I could hardly believe it when they asked if Greg had worked while at the hospice. It was only after I cried on the phone that they put me in touch with his bereavement service, apologized, and dismissed the fine.

The hardest experience was canceling our Virgin Media broadband account. As a single parent, I could no longer afford her prices.

Just phoning was hard enough – on three occasions I waited up to an hour for someone to answer.

When I finally succeeded, I explained my husband’s recent death and asked to cancel the account. When the line was cut, I assumed everything would be fine. But I was wrong. I had simply been cut off. I soon started receiving emails confirming next month’s bill. I called again, finally they told me that everything was settled. But then came texts and letters from a debt collection agency.

I was afraid. I’ve never had a credit card, let alone been contacted threateningly to clear a debt. I paid because I was afraid the agency would come to my house and scare my children.

Following this horrific experience, I read about the problems writer George Monbiot had with canceling his mother’s telephone contract with Vodafone after her death.

It wasn’t until he took to social media as a national newspaper reporter that the problem was solved. I decided to adopt a similar tactic, using my Instagram account. Virgin Media could not have acted faster. Within hours he had agreed to cancel my account (something he said he had done four months prior) and sent a check for the payment I had made to the debt agency.

Unfortunately, such a stressful experience made me reluctant to continue sorting through Greg’s paperwork.

Almost a year after his death, I still haven’t terminated his phone contract, his bank account or processed his will. It’s so wrong that people like me almost have to beg – or threaten offending companies with bad publicity – before we get the service we deserve.

It’s time for banks and utility companies to rise to the occasion.

Bereavement teams should be the norm, not the exception. Staff at contact centers and main street branches should be trained to deal with vulnerable customers, and apologies should be made promptly when mistakes are made.

WHAT BANKS AND BUILDING SOCIETIES SAY TO DO

LLOYDS

We want to get the right bereavement support every time. This is our guiding principle.

We have staff in all of our branches and a dedicated telephone team who are bereavement specialists.

In addition to being trained in managing and dealing with accounts when a client has passed away, they are also skilled in recognizing what additional help may be needed. This includes referring customers to the charity Grief Encounter, which supports bereaved children and young people.

Relatives can receive us in an agency (by appointment, so it is possible to reserve a room, for more privacy) or by telephone.

We can also arrange a video call and accept death notification online or by mail. We have also subscribed to the death notification service, so that we can process notifications received through it. We recognize that every family has different circumstances, which is why an appointed case manager is assigned.

NATWEST

We have a lot in place for bereavement cases – clients can also let us know in branch. Go to natwest.com/life-moments/bereavement.html

BARCLAYS

We have a dedicated team who will provide assistance to a relative or friend in the event of a client’s death. The team can also assist with registering the death, finding out if there is a will, arranging funerals and notifying other organisations. The team can be contacted on 0800 068 2238 (option 2) or via Bereavement Service Centre, Barclays Bank UK PLC, Leicester LE87 2BB.

Go to barclays.co.uk/what-todo-when-someone-dies/.

AT NATIONAL SCALE

Members can tell us about a bereavement in branch, online – nationwide.co.uk – or by phone or post. Also via the Death Notification Service website at deathnotificationservice.co.uk/.

We have a dedicated team that manages deceased member accounts from notification to closure. We do our best to make it as simple as possible, ensuring that all communications with members cease once we are notified that a member has died.

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