What if today was your last chance to speak to the people you love, your last opportunity to share what’s in your heart and your mind?
The cell phone buzzed in Colin’s pocket. A text from Jan, his sister. “Dad’s in the hospital. Heart attack. Operation tomorrow.” The son excused himself from the weekly staff meeting, asked his assistant to book a flight to Manhattan and hailed a cab for LAX. He called his wife to let her know where he was going and called his mother to tell her he was on his way.
Colin feared that he might not get there in time to say things he’d wanted to say to his father for a long time, but it never seemed like the right time. He wanted to tell him how much he admired, respected and loved him; how grateful he was to have him as a father, how he appreciated the sacrifices and support and how much he learned from him. As he looked out the airplane window, Colin realized he might never be able to talk with his father again.
At the hospital in Manhattan, his father Frank was conscious and stabilized, but frightened and hooked up to life saving equipment in the ICU. His wife Anne told him the kids were on their way; they’d be here before the surgery in the morning. Frank hoped he’d have the strength and courage to say what he’d wanted to say to his children for so long, but it somehow had never been the right time. He’d wanted to share the details of his estate plan. He wanted to tell them how proud he was of them, what fine people they’d turned out to be after all the problem years of adolescence, about his regrets for the things he didn’t do for and with them as a father. Frank wasn’t a religious man but he so desperately wanted to give Colin and Jan his blessing. He closed his eyes and hoped that they would arrive before his surgery.
This scenario happens in some form or other countless times a day. A parent or child realizes that the things each wanted to say to the other may never be said. They thought they had all the time in the world for what they know are crucial conversations. They’re wrong, because like Colin and his family, they may only have today.
Whether it’s a talk about money, the expression and actions of love or the legacy with which a parent will be remembered, if we fail to initiate the important conversations from the heart, we miss out on the chance to clear up misunderstandings, forgive wrongs and resolve unfinished business. Too often, when a parent dies, we’re burdened with feelings of anger, guilt, shame, doubt, abandonment and regret about a relationship that is central to our life. These feelings, often unconscious, infrequently articulated, interfere with our ability to move “cleanly” through our grief. Having the conversations before it’s too late can spare us all that.
My friend Marcia took a bold step in that direction by writing the following letter to her father when his struggle against lung cancer took a turn for the worse.
Although we both dance around the subject, we never really say to each other what we both know – that you are approaching the end of your inspiring, heroic, joyful and worthy life. Before we say goodbye and you leave me, I want to tell you how you shaped me into the woman I am today. From my earliest memories, you inspired me and taught me that I could do anything. You nourished my dreams and supported my goals by your faith in me. Thank you for the gifts of your love, acceptance and belief. You will live for me always and I will love you until my own last breath. Marcia
I never got the chance to say to my father what my friend Marcia could say to hers before he died. I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye. A decision I made—to marry outside of our faith—had unexpected repercussions and split us apart. If I had known then what I know now, and what I share with you in this book, I might have been able to heal our wounds and tell them of my love. They died over two decades ago, and the grief I carry with me is still profound.
In contrast, when my husband died, I grieved far more cleanly. By pure good luck, we had had the chance to say what we needed to say to each other. We had no unfinished business and that allowed me to heal with “clean grief.”
I wrote this book with the understanding of how difficult it can be to start these conversations. I provide guidelines for you in a variety of areas–the practical, the emotional and the spiritual. I share my own experiences of having, and not having, crucial conversations with my family. You will read about people who were kind enough to share their thoughts, fears and concerns with me about unfinished business within their own families. I’ve changed their names and identifying details to protect their privacy.
I offer you some food for thought, some inconvenient truths and some guidelines for carrying on crucial conversations about issues of money, love and legacy between you and your parents and your adult children. Together, I hope they provide navigation tools for intergenerational dialogue, appreciation and, where necessary, forgiveness and blessing.
Hundreds of books can give you the details of estate and financial planning. I wrote this one to provide a different framework for thinking about relationships between generations. Parents and children don’t like to think that money and love have any relationship to each other. Unfortunately, this is a myth; money insinuates itself into family relationships whether we like to admit it or not.
Under the best of circumstances, money is a touchy and often difficult subject to raise. In the context of discussing inheritance or financial planning, the resistance increases and the discomfort is magnified tenfold. The word legacy is often used by the financial planning community interchangeably with inheritance. In fact, legacy is something which parents create as they raise their children and how they will be remembered by their family and the community. It is not the same thing as inheritance at all. No, money, love and legacy are three separate areas. It is important that we tease them apart as we open up crucial conversations with the people we love.
In the process of researching and writing this book, I was surprised and affected by insights I didn’t anticipate. For example, I learned that we all have our illusions about the kind of person we are and how that impacts our relationship to our parents or children. My friend Nancy, who lived in Italy for many years, admitted how resentful she felt when she returned to the United States to help her mother after her father died. Nancy had never been close to her mother. Living and working abroad as a journalist allowed Nancy to think of herself as a good daughter who lived far away because she had to, not because she wanted to. When her mother asked for her help, Nancy had to address her relationship issues with her mother, which she could ignore while living overseas.
Mary told me how she tried to sabotage her father’s relationship with a new woman a few years after he was widowed. Mary claimed that the woman was a gold digger and only cared about her father’s money. Her real reason was her concern that her inheritance would be affected if part of her father’s estate went to his new wife. She said she knew it wasn’t right, but believed she and her children should get it all.
My research also showed me that whatever we’re certain about, it’s often not true, even when we’re certain that it is. In chapter six, called The Dangers of Certainty, I go into detail about the ways in which we assure ourselves that we’re right about what we believe.
Perhaps most important, I learned that it’s not just what we say that matters, but what we don’t say that lives on to trouble us when it’s no longer possible to speak. Just as Colin and his father failed to say important things to each other, because they “could never find the right moment,” each of us could find ourselves in a similar “racing to the bedside” scenario. Colin’s father made it through surgery, and father and son did have the chance to share their conversations from the heart. But it could just as easily have gone the other way. Colin would have carried regrets for the rest of his life for what he didn’t get the chance to say to his father.
That’s why I want you to move past the resistance that keeps you from opening the crucial conversations with your parents or your children. They’re crucial because they deal with memories you may have buried, regrets you may not realize you have and amends you may want to make. Clearing them will protect you, your parents and your children from having to bear an additional, unnecessary and painful burden if one of you should die.
The details will vary in every family story; the common thread is the same. Something happened, it wasn’t understood, discussed, or forgiven. It can lay the foundation for family relationship from then on–unless you learn to untangle what’s really happening. That’s what I’m hoping you’ll learn from this book.
I was widowed when my husband died in an accident. For months I couldn’t sleep or think clearly. I felt numb, weepy, unable to eat, restless. Yet I noticed a curious thing. Unlike so many widows I meet through my work, I didn’t feel any guilt or anger at my husband. My grief was clean, not muddied by an accumulation of things I had wanted to say to him. Having that crucial conversation didn’t just happen. We procrastinated, using every excuse we could think of; our schedules were full, we barely had time for our friends and family, it wasn’t our favorite thing to do and dozens more.
Finally, I asked my husband to review an exercise I was planning to introduce into the workshops I presented for women about finances and marriage. To him, this didn’t feel like a “conversation about the relationship,” but a concrete way to help me improve my workshops. The engineer in him wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to streamline something or make it work more efficiently. He agreed to have this conversation from the heart with me based on a series of questions I wrote for the workshop.
I share the questions we explored in the last part of this book. Had my husband lived, the results of our honesty and openness would have influenced the quality of our marriage. When he died, I realized the full value of what we had done.
Whereas my husband’s death healed in time like a clean surgical incision, my parents’ death left me with emotional scar tissue which took years to heal. It’s no mystery why that is so. My husband and I had our crucial conversations; my parents and I did not. If we had, I am certain that their death would not have haunted me for so long.
When you finish this book, you will understand why we confuse and equate money and love. You’ll get a deeper look at what you really want from your parents and children. You’ll realize who benefits the most from forgiveness. And you will know how to avoid the ‘if only’ syndrome. Perhaps most important, you will know how to resolve the ‘unfinished business’ with the people you love so that you don’t carry the burden of regret after they are gone.
Families confuse money with love. Parents procrastinate about planning. Siblings fight about inheritance. I have my own experiences in having, and not having, crucial conversations with my family about money and legacy. My research has uncovered experiences of people who share their thoughts, fears and concerns about unfinished business within their own families.
Whether it’s a talk about money, the expression and actions of love or the legacy of a parent, the failure to initiate these conversations can result in missed opportunities to resolve misunderstandings and forgive wrongs and unfinished business between generations.
Too often, when a parent dies, children are burdened with feelings of anger, guilt, shame, doubt, abandonment and regret about a relationship that is central to their life. These feelings, often unconscious, infrequently articulated, interfere with their ability to move cleanly through their grief.
It can be difficult to start these conversations. What I aim to do is give parents and their adult children the navigation tools for intergenerational dialogue, appreciation and, where necessary, forgiveness and blessing.
Why do people postpone conversations about crucial but difficult subjects? Why are death and inheritance so hard to talk about?
Social custom teaches us that it’s rude to pry into our parents’ affairs or to raise subjects with our children that will make them uncomfortable. Death and money to us are what sex was to the Victorians, uncomfortable and impolite to discuss, but with repercussions that make conversation necessary.
Home Instead Senior Care, a national provider of home care services, coined a name for this very important conversation – the 40-70 Rule. It means that children who have reached age 40 or whose parents are 70 need to start discussions about expectations and responsibilities regarding living arrangements, driving habits, health concerns and financial matters as the parents age.
Parents can take practical steps such as creating a legacy binder, which files important papers about financial, legal, medical, and end-of-life preferences. A list of documents to keep in the Binder is available at www.moneyloveandlegacy.com. Adult children should know where this binder is kept. If parents don’t want to disclose financial information, they should at least have the financial and legal contacts listed in case the children need them. Funeral preferences should also be readily available since that is the first thing children will have to deal with.
Parents can also share their inheritance strategy ahead of time with their children to avoid ugly legal battles over an estate. While parents (and their children) may struggle with the idea of how to divide up inheritance, it’s been shown that regardless of the distribution siblings are much less likely to take things to court if they know of their parents reasoning in advance.
The conversations that matter on these subjects fall into two categories – the practical ones that deal with finances, medical, and planning for end of life preferences. The other kind of conversation, the one that deals with unfinished emotional business, can be a huge burden for a child after a parent dies. It can also be more difficult to navigate.
Some important questions to ask between parents and children include:
- What could I have done differently?
- What do you need from me now to move forward?
- Do your parents/children know how much you love them?
- What do you most respect and admire about them?
- What is the most important thing you want them to know?
- What are you most grateful for?
- Do you need to ask for forgiveness?
Conversations from the heart can help clear the emotional hurdles between families. By speaking with respect and inviting them to say what’s in their mind and heart as well, you will be leaving each other a legacy of trust and love.
Don’t wait to say these things.
Reprinted from the book Money Love & Legacy: Conversations That Matter Between Generations (PrimeLife Publishing). Copyright © Helga Hayse 2010; all rights reserved.