First of all, my mom is still alive.

She is wise, has a wicked sense of humor, and is always willing to talk about topics most people find challenging. All of this is a gift, in and of itself.

Let my explain, then, why I am referring to this lesson as: Mom’s Death Gift.

Death is a typically challenging topic of conversation. I see people avoiding death (thinking about it, planning for it, discussing it with others, even believing it exists) in all kinds of creative ways. Death avoidance is especially noticeable in my work with business families and families with generational wealth. For these families, the fact that there are assets which can directly and powerfully affect children, grandchildren, and sometimes generations beyond seems to often heighten the need to address death—and therefore the urge to avoid it.

But for those with family wealth, discomfort with their own mortality and the consequences of ignoring death can be devastating.

Recently an attorney reached out to me for help with a client. The father was a serial entrepreneur and successful wealth creator. He was divorced with 5 kids and no financial ties with his ex-wife. In spite of heroic efforts over many years, the attorney had been unable to get this man to discuss and plan for what would happen after his death. At age 60, a car accident sent the wealth creator to the hospital and the attorney had mere hours to put some kind of basic planning paperwork together before the man, unfortunately, died.

After this sudden death, his eldest child was forced to manage two operating businesses he had never been taught about or involved with as well as several complex real estate assets. This adult child had his own career and family to manage and now had to navigate intense and overwhelming business/financial pressure in addition to grieving the tragic loss of a loving, though death-avoidant, father. The attorney was clear: this father had cared about his kids and did not want his death to make their lives difficult. However, as the attorney put it, “Everyone thinks these things only happen to other people.” The lawyer had seen the possibility of a train wreck like this and was unable to help the father manage it more proactively. This example is not uncommon; death affects all of us sooner or later. I have also been engaged in several situations where the senior generation was in their 90s and planning was still incomplete. “We have plenty of time . . ..”

Statistically, not really.

Back to my mom. While my dad was declining due to Parkinson’s for the five years leading up to his death in 2018, my parents included my older sister, younger sister, and me in conversations about their planning. We met their professionals, asked questions, and had a voice in how things were set up. It was upsetting, but it was also inspiring and strengthening. While thinking about saying goodbye was very sad and painful, understanding how things would work, what decisions had already been made, and which would need to be made, and by whom, was supportive—even comforting.

After Dad passed, Mom became even more committed to planning transparency. Her driving priority was that all of us siblings would continue to love and support one another. She did not want anything related to dealing with her estate to have a negative impact on our sibling relationship or any of us individually. After her death, she wanted us free of administrative hassles and surprises and to be able to focus on what we needed to grieve her and—her main request—to spend time together laughing and telling stories about the wildness of our family.

Through calm, productive conversations, we made decisions about who would get meaningful pieces of jewelry, who would be the estate executor, and who would hold onto the infamous, twisted soup ladle for future generations (click here for more background on that one).

Mom did have one request she did not put up for discussion: that I be her healthcare representative. I did not love thinking about this—the situations that might arise and decisions I might have to make. When I asked why she was requesting I take this on, she quickly replied that there is a special kind of conflict between mothers and daughters, and she feared my sisters might recall some of the saltier moments while considering if plug-pulling was the best choice! We all laughed and agreed it would be me.

I took this role to heart and sat down with Mom a few times to discuss potential circumstances and how she’d want me to handle things. If I was going to need to make a big decision, I wanted to get it right.

“What if you can’t feed yourself or go to the bathroom on your own?”

“How about if you are paralyzed from the neck down and in significant pain?”

“What if you are in a coma and can’t communicate at all and it seems you are brain dead but really you are alive and well inside your head and enjoying life in a way none of us can perceive and I yank the plug, Mom? How about that?”

This last one got a chuckle out of her. Then her face got somber. Her reply:

“Very interesting. You know me very well, and I know if the situation should arise, you will take good care of me. Please, whatever you should decide at the time, know that I trust your judgement implicitly. Don’t second guess or feel guilty. I love you so much. I am so lucky to have you.”

She understands me. She gets how much I love her and how fearful I am of making a mistake. She can foresee a realistic situation in which I will have to make a tough call and can see me obsessing and torturing myself for years over whether I got it right. Clearly, she has known me for a while. Thanks, Mom. I love you!

Her reply was so beautiful and calming. A true gift. This is the kind of gift that only comes from talking directly about death and all the related consequences with loved ones.

I want to note that these concepts relate to families across the entire income spectrum, of course. All family systems can greatly benefit from open discussions about death, what will need to be handled, and how. For readers who have been following this blog for a while, it will be no surprise that I believe financial/material wealth comes with both possibilities and pitfalls and that one of the key ways to increase the likelihood of the former and decrease the chances of the latter is through communication throughout the lifespan of the next generation. Wealth-generating parents speaking proactively to their children and then their adult children about what the future might hold.

Death is a normal and guaranteed part of life. It should be part of the conversation. Avoiding has a cost, as there is always a cost to doing nothing.