WASHINGTON – It is Cheryl Gross’s job to deal with death. As a deputy at the Prince George’s County Register of Wills, she meets people every day who have lost a loved one.
Gross’ usual approach is to remain professional and not to get emotionally involved with her clients. But not much is usual these days, as family members of the Sept. 11 victims come to registers of wills offices in the Washington suburbs to tie up another loose end from the recent deaths.
“I try to not get to emotional because I know they are already emotional,” said Gross, adding that her own co-workers rush to see how she is holding up emotionally after each meeting with a victim’s family.
American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, leaving 189 dead or missing on the plane and in the building, most from the Washington area.
By the end of last week, Gross had seen 14 survivors of the 24 county residents who she said were killed in the attack, while officials in the Montgomery County Register of Wills office had seen five families and expected to deal with 10 or 12 more.
Montgomery County Chief Deputy Register Margie Beatty said their office also got a call about processing the will of someone who was killed in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. And Prince George’s County officials also expect to deal with family members of the two Brentwood postal workers who died from inhalation anthrax, both of whom lived in the county.
“Some of those families, they come in, and you’re heart just really goes out to them because Sept. 11 was so sudden,” said Prince George’s Register of Wills Lynn Loughlin Skerpon. “It’s just very emotional.”
Maryland registers of wills are making some accommodations for families who have to sort out the estates of loved ones lost in the attack. In Prince George’s County, those people are always seen first, even if there are other people ahead of them.
Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have waived processing fees for victims’ estates. Montgomery County waived bonding fees, and Prince George’s waived fees up to $18,000. They said newspapers are also providing free publication of notices.
Skerpon said she designated Gross as the person to deal with the Pentagon families, some of whom may not have death certificates right away. Skerpon praised her staff, and Gross particularly. She said the staff gave Gross an angel pin with a red-white-and-blue ribbon for her work with the families because, “frankly, she has been angel to them.”
Gross said the families are accompanied by a Defense Department official, who acts as a spokesman for the bereaved. The families have been composed for the most part. She only remembers one man being particularly emotional, because his wife’s body was still missing at the Pentagon.
Beatty said the employees in Montgomery have been dealing with the victims the same way they deal with every family who comes has to deal with the paperwork when a loved one dies.
“We do whatever we can to help every family that comes in here, every day,” Beatty said. “We try to make it as easy as possible.”
Beatty has only met with one victim’s family. The family had lost a child but “they seemed very together,” she said, adding that Montgomery Count Register of Wills Joseph Griffin later got a thank-you card from that family for the way the office handled everything.
After Sept. 11, their office called Montgomery Hospice to come train employees on how to deal with the grieving families that they encounter every day. That class is scheduled after Thanksgiving.
“It’s part of our on-going service to the public,” Griffin said of the bereavement training.
Registers of wills have also asked state legislators to waive inheritance taxes on the estates of Pentagon victims. That proposal will not be debated until the General Assembly meets in the spring, but Griffin said the taxes would not be due until then anyway.
“We’re just trying to do anything we can for them,” he said. “It’s really just a sad situation. Most of the people who come in are parents setting up estates for their lost children.”