I’m a caregiving expert, with more than 30 years of experience in the field of aging, so you’d think I’d be fully prepared for a loved one’s death, especially when that person is older or has been battling illness.
Yet even for me, death caught me by surprise. My mom died a year and a half ago; my oldest sister, Karen, just a few months ago. I’ve had my hands full with caregiving for many years, but there are so many questions I wish I had asked them.
Now it’s harder for me to feel that I’ve fully lived up to my responsibilities as executor of their estates. And because my dad has Alzheimer’s disease, it’s impossible to discuss some of these details with him.
You can bet that I’ll be asking my other sisters and other loved ones about this information now, long before I hope I need it. Of course, I always ensure that advance directives, estate and financial planning, etc., are in place, but I’ll also delve into the finer details and ask these questions:
Where is important paperwork located? I thought I had the most recent valid copies of my sister’s legal documents, but, in fact, I did not and had to search through piles of paper for them (plus information about her home, utilities, debt and car). Your loved ones may know where their financial and legal documents are, but it’s no help to you if you can’t find them.
What specifically do you want for your memorial service? It was so stressful to put together ideal services to honor my mom and sister when we were all deep in shock and grief. I wish I had discussed details with them like music, location, speakers, flowers and food.
Who should be given your personal items? I urged my sister to catalog her vast collection of glassware and collectibles, but this task was never completed. My mom also had beautiful jewelry and travel mementos. Neither of them listed in their wills what to do with these specific items. It would have been a great comfort to me to know I was carrying out their exact wishes for distributing their precious items.
What are the specifics of your life? My mom had a stroke when she was just 63 and suffered aphasia, making it difficult for her to share her life stories. Likewise, my sister passed at age 62, and we hadn’t recorded her many jobs, activities and life adventures. I wish I had recorded the particulars of their life stories much earlier.
Who is in that picture? We have stacks of family photographs of people who look familiar, but we’re not quite sure who they are. I wish I’d labeled each photo when discussing it with my grandparents, parents and sister. Now it’s too late. Family history is held in the memories of our elders, and there is no substitute for in-person identification and the richness of lively family stories.
Some final advice: Don’t let your hesitancy to talk about death stop you from broaching these subjects with your family and friends. I find that the closer someone might be to death, the harder it is to talk about these things because we don’t want the person to get the sense that we think their death is imminent.
So start conversations early and have them often, which will help reduce the awkwardness. Take a practical, matter-of-fact approach. Use a friend’s experience, a book you read, a movie or TV show you saw, or share this blog as a conversation starter.
Above all, be clear that you are motivated by love and a sense of responsibility to discuss these specifics. Remember, as much as we hate to face it, death is inevitable for us all. The better prepared we are, beyond the basic legal documents, the easier it will be to weather the storms of grief.
Amy Goyer is AARP’s family, caregiving and multigenerational issues expert; she spends most of her time in Phoenix, where she is caring for her dad, who lives with her. She is the author of AARP’s Juggling Work and Caregiving . Follow Amy on Twitter @amygoyer and on Facebook .
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