Parents: Wills and medical directives are the last best gift you can give your kids.
If you’re anything like me, your nest has been emptied of your little birds for quite some time, and you’re figuring out how to apply for Medicare: O.K., boomer! You’ve done a lot of stuff in your life, and you still have good years ahead. You are involved in the lives of your children and grandchildren, and you’d do anything for them. Here is a way to show how much you really love your children: Do the paperwork.
I am talking about the legal paperwork of a mature life: A will or a trust. A durable power of attorney. An advanced health directive. You can go online or hire a lawyer, but you need to get these documents done. Then you just have to let your designated executor know where you keep this important trove. When you’re gone, your children will thank you.
Here is a way to show how much you really love your children: Do the paperwork.
I can be smug because my husband and I have recently completed the above job. But I should hang my head in shame that we hadn’t taken care of this before. I guess we played the odds of life and won. But what if we had both died while our kids were still minors? We were negligent parents, legally speaking. We had excuses: Who had the time back then? Who had the money? We often talked about being responsible adults, but in retrospect, we were not.
In the expected natural order, children outlive their parents. (Please, God!) We may have to care for our parents physically in their old age, and we bury them when they die. For Catholics, arranging the funeral of a parent is a holy task: Our parents brought us into the church through baptism, and we see them out on their way home to God. Having buried both of my parents, I know how helpful it is to know your parents’ last wishes. Which is to say, I know how unhelpful it is not to know what they want, not to have ever had the difficult but vital conversations about dying and death.
In my case, my mother outlived my father, but bless her heart, she abdicated her responsibility for his funeral—her philosophy of life being that if you never made a decision, you couldn’t be blamed for things not working out well. So my siblings and I did what we thought best. We chose the cemetery. We chose cremation. We chose the readings and the music for my dad’s and later my mom’s funeral Masses. We tried to honor our parents without really knowing if we were.
Arranging the funeral of a parent is a holy task: Our parents brought us into the church through baptism, and we see them out on their way home to God.
My folks had established a family trust, but they had not put anything into the trust. We thought that they had signed advanced health directives, but we didn’t know where they were or how to access them. When my father was gravely ill, my sister and I were certain that he did not want any extraordinary measures taken to prolong his life artificially. As we told the doctor this, my mother accused us of trying to kill off our dad. That was not a fun day.
After my dad died, I found the leather satchel with the paperwork establishing the trust and their advanced health directives. His last wishes were as we thought.
“Well,” my mother said triumphantly, “at least you see that I want everything done to save me! Don’t pull my plug!”
No one likes to think about one’s own death, but we can be sure that the event will not be prevented by our inattention.
I showed her where she needed to make some updates because the document she had signed years ago stipulated that nothing extraordinary be done on her behalf. Over the next seven years, my mother slowly succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, but on her own time, with all possible medical intervention. She never changed her directive legally, but thanks to that one outburst, we knew what she wanted.
When we parents put to paper our intentions for our health care and our wealth distribution, we can avoid any misunderstandings or machinations on the part of our heirs. No one likes to think about one’s own death, but we can be sure that the event will not be prevented by our inattention. No one likes to think that in the absence of any instructions, our children will not be their best selves. But we have all heard stories. We all know the power of money to divide a family.
Once we are gone, of course, we cannot control the narrative. The best we can do is leave a blueprint to be followed. That is why I think of these legal documents as a labor of love for our children.
Once we are gone, we cannot control the narrative. The best we can do is leave a blueprint to be followed.
My aunt and uncle, God rest them, had planned for everything surrounding their deaths, from prepaid burial arrangements to the musical requests for their funerals. My cousins were able to grieve, secure in the knowledge that they were carrying out their parents’ wishes. The hymns my aunt and uncle had chosen were endearing guitar Mass throwbacks to the ’70s, which indicated to me that they had stipulated these instructions long before they died. But seeing the serenity on my cousins’ tear-streaked faces made me realize that I owed my children the same active, helpful love that my aunt and uncle had modeled for me.
Death is a taboo in our society—I am always amazed by the number of people I know who have never been to a funeral—but we need to talk about it with our loved ones. We can hide from it and sanitize it and ignore it, but our death will have to be dealt with by somebody. With a bit of forethought, we can love our children one last time from the grave. Where there is literally a will, there’s a way.