I recently read an article in the New York Times by Alexandra Butler entitled “Experts on Aging, Dying as They Lived.” It is one in a great series in The Opinionator section of the Times called The End.
In the article Ms. Butler described her parents’ efforts to be prepared for end of life, including making sure all their documents were in order expressing their wishes regarding medical treatment and things of that nature.
She described her reaction to her parents’ efforts to involve her in their process this way: “As a teenager I hated these discussions. I probably told them to stop torturing me and to stop being so morbid. They were reassuring me about scenarios that I did not want to think about. I could not have known how grateful I would be now.”
As a fiduciary, I often see the consequences of the failure of individuals to prepare for the end of life and to involve their families in the process that should accompany such decisions. Having your house in order as you approach old age and, eventually, the end of your life is probably one of the greatest gifts one can give to the next several generations.
I also speak to many people who express much the same sentiments when the elders in their lives attempt to engage them in the conversation about aging, death, and the preparation needed to make those events dignified and comfortable.
Ms. Butler ended her meditation on the death of her parents with a moving and thoughtful insight. “Our deaths are the last message we leave for those we love. How my parents died — in comfort — was the way they cared for me after they were gone. I was not ready to lose them in my 20s, but they had prepared and so I was protected.”
When we visit a lawyer and prepare our estate plans, it is essential to engage the rest of the family in that process, even when they view it as morbid. A few examples of the importance of those conversations illustrate the importance of having these discussions.
I have found that parents are often clueless about their children. First, they tend to believe they all get along and there are no stresses or conflicts among their children. Second, there is a belief that their children innately share the same values and beliefs they do. These beliefs and assumption are not necessarily true and the consequences when they turn out not to be true can be catastrophic.
If a family never has conversations about their end of life decisions, they will never discover what all too often becomes clear after the death of the older generation. Decisions are left in the hands of people who don’t agree with the dying wishes expressed in an Advance Healthcare Directive. Among all your children, which one’s views on end of life decisions is closest to your own? How do they feel about letting nature take its course rather than engaging in all manner of traumatic and ultimately useless heroic efforts to save life at the expense of the value of living? The fact is, you will not know whether your wishes will be zealously championed by your chosen representatives if you have not discussed with those representatives what it is you want, and how they feel about that.
In the case of trusts and wills, many parents, believing their children all “get along so well,” name them all as co-trustees or co-executors of their estates. If the children do not get along well, then forcing them to get along when the crisis of your death occurs is a prescription for disaster. Every past slight or grievance gets dragged back into the decision making process and things begin to fall apart. Once relations are strained, every action is scrutinized for a hint of bad faith dealing, fraud, or mismanagement. All of the worst aspects of putting decisions into the hands of a committee are magnified by the lack of agreement among the family-committee members. Better to have extended discussions with the whole family where the unpleasant and harmful dynamics of the family are revealed.
If you are experiencing difficulty having the conversation in your family, check out the program and resources available at http://theconversationproject.org/.
Don’t wait; have the conversation with your family and give them the gift of peace, love and fond memories rather than a legacy of hurt and strife.