Lessons and Legacies, March 2011My father-in-law died last month, one month short of his 95th birthday. It was a peaceful and fully anticipated passing. There is even some sense of release from the physical and cognitive limitations that required intensive caregiving at home. The family grieves his loss and celebrates his lifetime of accomplishments.
As the siblings work on writing an obituary, it is increasingly clear that there is a great mix of fact and myth, as often results when one strings together fragments of history into a reality. My father-in-law was a taciturn man who did not boast of his accomplishments. Four siblings spanning a decade have different memories of his life. I am grateful that before dementia took over, we got a timeline of some key events, but there are a lot of details missing, and now there are few left who can fill in the blanks (and settle the disputes).
Lesson 1: Write your own obituary (see Director’s Message March 2009) or at least create a list of key dates and accomplishments that you want to be remembered by. This will make it so much less stressful for your family at an emotional time.
Lesson 2: Make sure your documents are in order and that your family knows where to find them easily. These documents include a will, advance directives, life insurance, and other estate plans. It also includes letting them know where to find all important financial documents including where your bank accounts and safe deposit box are, and other important papers. We were fortunate that my father-in-law turned over financial power of attorney to his eldest daughter 5 years ago, and she has become familiar with the piles of papers and documents, even though she is 3000 miles away from the papers and 6000 miles away from her parents.
Lesson 3: You can do a lot to reduce discord among your children (family) by having the difficult discussions about end of life while you are able to do so. It is so much easier to make end of life decisions when all the children agree and know what the parent would have chosen. Our family was in accord that my father-in-law had led a good, long life and that what he deserved was a peaceful, beautiful passing. He got this and more, with fabulous support from family, friends, a great hospice team, and blessings from a Hawaiian priest, the TM community of my sister-in-law, and a celebration of life in the family Quaker tradition. This lesson also extends to the family heirlooms. Get a sense from your family about what is important to them, and write up your decisions about how you wish things to be distributed in a way that will feel equitable to all. Many people give away pieces like favorite jewelry or family quilts while they are alive so that they can experience the joy of giving and the recipient’s appreciation. It also gives you a chance to pass along the story that goes with the piece, which adds value for the recipient. (If there is conflict, a professional mediator can help.)
Lesson 4: Many people think about the legacy they leave behind, and feel inadequate. Often the legacy is not something tangible like a scientific theory or publication. My father-in- law did great work toward world peace and empowerment of disenfranchised people, contributing to institutions that carry this work on today. But his legacy to us is his deep belief in the power of education to effect this change. All four of his children are educators in very different settings, and we see it reflected in our children. There is also a family legacy that preserving the family ties has to prevail over the conflicts that have arisen through the stressful parts of caregiving. Celebrate your legacy.
Susan W. Hoskins, LCSW