June 2011 Newsletter

“You never know when death will affect you. We always think it is something that we don’t have to think about until much later in life.” –Words from a widow in her 30’s with two young boys.

“You never  know when death will affect you.”
Many people think they will go along for the ride and leave to fate the final miles of their trip. I have conversations with people all the time about end-of-life topics. One might be surprised at the number of times I hear people say, “I don’t care what they do with me when I’m gone.” My answer to that is to tell them, “Planning is a gift.” What kind of legacy is it to leave a spouse or children with the responsibility of decisions that were yours to make?  What kind of legacy is it to leave loved ones questioning the rest of their lives if they “did what mom (or dad, or a spouse) would have wanted?”

“We always think it is something that we don’t have to think about until much later in life.”
It is somewhat surprising to find someone in their 20s, 30s or 40s who has completed their advance directives, chosen legal guardians for their children, and have their affairs in order. The tendency is to ignore such details – assuming it can be put off at least until after you start getting AARP membership solicitations in the mail. I applaud those who plan ahead.

I’m generally surprised when addressing a group of seniors at an Assisted Living Facility to find that many have never had a discussion with a family member about what they want done at the end of their life. How can we assume that loved ones will carry out our wishes? Why don’t we have opinions about this, and why have we not expressed them before now?

What about our possessions? “My grandmother asked me to come inside when I finished mowing her lawn one day. She wanted me to pick out some dishes or furniture I would like to have after she died. Only in my teens, I was startled, and remember saying, “Oh, Grandma, You’re never going to die! In one short sentence I dismissed her wishes, denied her the gift of honouring her, and the gifts she intended to give me. This is not uncommon.” [Chapter 2, Please Dance at My Funeral: A Celebration of Life] I’ve already asked my girls to let me know if there is a piece of art, furniture or jewelry that is of particular significance to them. I’ve also learned that they have no affinity what so ever for the Bavarian dishes that I have saved for the purpose of bequeathing to them. At least I now know!

As we embark on summer picnics, family gatherings and various reunions, don’t shirk from the opportunity to bring up important end-of-life topics.  It doesn’t have to become a morbid conversation. You can simply mention that you’ve always admired Grandma’s cherry end-table, or Grandpa might invite a fishing aficionado in the family to look over fishing rods and lures, offering a cherished possession that seems of interest. A lawyer pointed out that it is always better for the parent or senior to bring up these topics. When a sibling initiates a conversation, the parent or other siblings are generally suspicious about the intention for discussion.

There is no stage in life that we are asked to give up our sense of humor. If we feel comfortable talking about our wishes, we can put others at ease. Discussing end-of-life topics with sensitivity doesn’t have to exclude a little wit or light-heartedness. When we open this door with our loved-ones, it makes it easier to have discussions when the real time comes.

I recently finished a painting with a white Adirondack chair as its focus. Showing the painting to my daughters I suggested that there be at my funeral celebration one, white Adirondack chair with some potted flowers on each side of it, and my wide-brimmed, pink gardening hat on the seat. There was no further discussion about it at that time, but with a smile and the suggestion, I knew I had planted a seed that they will recall when the time comes.

Summer is on its way. Enjoy!