After my husband died Virgin Media set debt collectors on me… surely it’s time EVERY firm taught staff about grief?
Traumatic: Stacey Heale, with her late husband Greg and their children Dali and Bay, felt terribly let down
To have the means to pay off your mortgage in your 30s sounds like a dream scenario. But when you are only able to do this because a loved one has just been told they have terminal cancer, it is a bittersweet experience. It’s what happened to me nearly six years ago – and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.
My husband Greg Gilbert, at the time frontman of indie band Delays, was just 39 when he was told he had incurable bowel cancer – and that the only medical option available was chemotherapy. At the time, we had two young daughters, Dali, three, and one-year-old Bay, and our home in Southampton was on the market because we had outgrown it.
The only crumb of comfort we could cling on to was a critical illness policy that, we were told, would clear the mortgage in the event of either Greg or I suffering a major illness such as a heart attack, a stroke or cancer.
Taking out the policy when we bought the two-bedroom property was the only way we could get the loan. I had nearly cancelled the plan just before Greg was diagnosed because I was on maternity leave and money was tight. I also thought such policies weren’t necessary for young people like Greg and I. How wrong I was – and how glad that I didn’t cancel.
When the policy paid up, I took the cheque for just over £100,000 to the local HSBC branch so I could clear 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 such information – ‘You’ll just have to sort it out.’
I was so upset with the offhand way I was dealt with 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 a suite upstairs where I was offered a coffee and some tissues.
When I explained my situation, he accessed his computer and said: ‘It’s done – the mortgage balance is cleared.’
When I was leaving the bank, the clerk I had originally dealt with apologised. He said he hadn’t known what to do because it didn’t fit into any of his training.
This was just my first experience of the poor procedures some companies have in place to deal with customers wanting sensitive issues to be dealt with.
When Greg died last September, I dreaded dealing with the family’s financial affairs – cancelling policies, changing names on accounts and dealing with loose ends. I was right to be worried.
I spent hours on the phone to Revenue & Customs explaining why Greg hadn’t completed a self-assessment tax return – he was in a hospice. It had issued him with fines totalling hundreds of pounds for failing to complete the return.
I could hardly believe it when they asked whether Greg had worked while he was in the hospice. It was only after I cried on the phone that they put me through to its bereavement department, apologised and dismissed the fine.
The most difficult experience was cancelling our Virgin Media broadband account. As a single parent, I could no longer afford its prices.
Just getting through by phone was hard enough – on three separate occasions, I waited up to an hour for someone to answer.
When I eventually got through, I explained my husband’s recent death and asked to cancel the account. When the line went dead, I assumed all would be good. But I was wrong. I had simply been cut off. I soon started receiving emails confirming next month’s bill. I phoned again, eventually being told all was sorted. But then came texts and letters from a debt collection agency.
I was scared. I have never had a credit card, let alone been contacted in a threatening way to clear a debt. I paid because I was worried the agency would come to my house and scare my children.
In the aftermath of this horrible experience, I read about the problems that writer George Monbiot had encountered cancelling his mother’s phone contract with Vodafone after her death.
It was only when he took to social media as a journalist of a national newspaper that the issue was resolved. I decided to adopt a similar tactic, using my Instagram account. Virgin Media could not have acted faster. Within hours, it had agreed to cancel my account (something it said it had done four months previously) and sent a cheque for the payment I had made to the debt agency.
Sadly, such a stressful experience has made me reluctant to continue sorting out Greg’s paperwork.
Nearly a year on from his death, I still haven’t cancelled his phone contract, his bank account or dealt with his will. It is 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 is time for banks and utility companies to step up to the mark.
Dedicated bereavement teams should be the norm, not the exception. Staff in contact centres and high street branches should be trained to deal with vulnerable customers, and apologies issued swiftly when mistakes are made.