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Regretting the Things We Didn’t Say

The mysterious disappearance of Malaysia flight MH370 in 2014 with 239 people on board may finally yield some answers. Experts are analyzing a wing piece that washed up on the shores of an island thousands of miles from where the plane is thought to have crashed into the ocean.

To most of us, the people who died are just names. Yet, for each of the victims, a family is grieving. Loved ones are angry; they want an explanation. An ordinary flight to a vacation destination – what went wrong, how could this happen? An explanation of why the plane crashed may satisfy the survivor’s mind. For the heart, there is no comfort.

I remember watching the search for the missing plane last year and thinking of  how suddenly life can change. People we love die, and the things we meant to say to them can no longer be said. We never told them how much we love them, how grateful we are for all they teach and give us, how much we admire them and how lucky we are that they share our life.

We waited, thinking we had all the time in the world. We’d tell them at the right time, when we weren’t so busy, when we could figure out what we want to say. We didn’t give much thought to the reality that all we have is this moment.

Dr. Ira Byock wrote a book called “The Four Things That Matter Most ” about what’s important to people at the end of life. Don’t wait for the end of life. Say them now:

“Forgive me”, “I forgive you”, “Thank you”, “I love you”.

Simple statements, yet they tap into the deep layers of relationship between us and the people we love. They can’t read our mind. We have to let them know how much they mean to us.

If yoiu knew you had 24 hours left to live, what would you want to say to the people you love?


Parents Abused by Adult Children

Parental abuse is a silent problem, widely prevalent but not widely discussed. Search online and most of what comes up is about parents who abuse children.

Parents who are bullied by their adult children have trouble admitting it; they may even deny that there is a problem. They feel depressed, and anxious. Too often they blame themselves, believing themselves to be at fault and feeling ashamed that they “didn’t do the right thing” and that’s why they’re being abused.

Many parents put up with the bullying because they don’t want to end a relationship with a child they love. Some need their child’s help with care giving. Others fear their child’s unpredictable aggression if they speak up about their feelings.

Estate planners come across these painful situations when parents draw up a will. They often recommend that parents talk openly with children about inheritance plans, explaining their reasons about inheritance distribution. The rationale is that bullies will change their behavior in anticipation of future reward.

This advice feels dangerous to parents who live in fear of the next round of indignity. Odds are that the bullying child will become even more so.

It’s sad, but staying silent about inheritance plans is a safety shield for abused parents, a way to regain a sense of dignity and self-esteem.

How much better to find the courage to say to a bully, any bully, “Back off, you’re crossing a line here” while you’re alive. For those parents who don’t have the strength and courage to say this, there’s no law that says your children are entitled to inheritance.



Dad gives Family a Gift from the Heart

Roger, the husband of my friend Diana, needed heart surgery that carried serious risks. He and Diana prepared for the worst, making sure their financial and legal documents were up-to-date. Perhaps just as important, they were open and honest about their fears of Roger’s chances of surviving. They celebrated their decades of love and the life they had built together with their four children.

The surgery was scheduled for two weeks in advance. Roger and Diana asked their children to visit earlier, rather than gathering on the day of the surgery. During those preceding days, the family pored over photo albums and home movies, laughing and remembering happy times and sharing feelings about what they mean to each other. Tom, the youngest son, who had been estranged from the family for years, didn’t show up.

Roger spent time alone with each of the children who came, wanting to be sure they had the chance to say to him what was personal for them. He wanted to give each their own blessing and tell them individually that he loved them.

At the time of this writing, Roger is recovering, but he will need additional surgery. He would still like to talk with Tom, but this may not happen. Tom may find himself in a ‘race-to-the-bedside” situation. On the other hand, he may not care.

Consider what Roger has given to his family, because he was willing to open his heart to the people he loved. He gave them a gift of a conversation from the heart.

No Chance to Say Goodbye

“See you later”. Millions of us say it as we go about our daily lives.

“Enjoy your workout” is so ordinary that, when Sheryl Sandberg said it to her husband before his sudden death, she couldn’t have imagined that she wouldn’t see him alive again.

“Have a great time” we say to family members as they leave the cruise ship on one of the regular excursions by plane for a flight over Alaska. Last week, the plane crashed and we never saw them again.

A beach vacation in Tunis? A movie at the cineplex? A visit to your children on the college campus? These are are ordinary events of everyday life.

We expect to return, to resume the ordinary daily activities we take for granted. We rarely think that we may not see these people we love again. That there’s always time to tell people we love them.

Last week was an object lesson in not waiting to say”I love you” as random events took over the lives of millions of people. Some we know; others we don’t know. Terrorists, malfunctioning engines, unforeseen health issues, a deranged teenager with a gun – and the myriad of things that happen even when they’re not supposed to show us how little control we have over our life. As John Lennon wrote, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”.

“See you later.” Maybe…

Funerals at the Mall

Looking for a custom coffin or personalized urn for your ashes? You might find just what you’re looking for at the local mall. Forest Lawn Cemetery in southern California has a novel marketing plan to bring the cemetery to you.

The company has set up kiosks in malls where you can check out cremation urns, see coffin selection brochures and learn about the wide range of burial services, none of which , unfortunately, you will be around to appreciate.

In between the latest arrivals at Gap, Banana Republic, and Macy’s, you can browse among the colorful offerings for your remains. It’s a chance to get comfortable with the fact that we will die, which too many of us don’t like to think about.

Maybe this signals a new comfort level with the idea of mortality. If you’re a baby boomer, you probably like to have things your way. You want a ‘green’ funeral, which requires no urn, vault, or coffin? What about a coffin that reminds you of your beloved T-Bird? An urn emblazoned with Go-Niners or other favorite sports team? Just check out the brochure.

One can only hope that along with customized funeral accessories, you also have a living will, a durable power of attorney for health care, an advance directive and a will. Those documents will mean more to your family than the logo on your final resting place.

In Your 90s? Hand Over Your Keys

A driver in his mid-nineties was trying to parallel park on a busy street in Palo Alto during the height of the lunchtime hour this week. The driver hit the accelerator instead of the brake and slammed into a pedestrian and four people seated at tables outside of a restaurant. Two of them needed surgery, the others had cuts and bruises. The driver could just as easily have killed them all. The police are calling this a tragic accident and, pending further investigation, don’t plan to file criminal charges.

The DMV requires that the driver take an ’emergency retest’ to see if his license should be taken away. Really? If he passes his retest, will they let him out on the road again? He wasn’t drinking. He could have been doing drugs, perfectly legal drugs that impair his ability to respond quickly, to coordinate his eye, hand and foot movements, to judge distances and inhibit his responses.

Actually, what he was doing is criminal. He shouldn’t have been driving in the first place.  The people he injured may suffer permanent health problems or be disfigured. Our collective insurance rates will rise because his insurance company will have to reimburse the people he injured. If he had killed the five people he injured, their families would have suffered serious consequences.

The Department of Motor Vehicles should draw a line in the sand. No matter how well a 90- year-old sees or how many questions he answers correctly, he’s too old to drive. No matter how sharp his memory or what a good dancer he still is, behind the wheel of a car, he is a potential menace. If he hands in his keys voluntarily, let’s give him a medal. If not, let’s deny him a license.

Ninety is not the new 70. The body and brain that worked well two decades ago isn’t doing so well.   Don’t endanger the rest of us in the name of beating the aging game. If you’re in your 90s, hand in your keys. If your parents are in their 90s, for your sake and theirs, take the keys.It’s time to draw a line in the sand.

Fate and the Random Event

One week ago, 239 people boarded Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Kuala Lumpur, expecting to land in Beijing a few hours later. The plane vanished and has still not been found. Vanishing from the world’s radar screen practically never happens.

A woman vacationing in Florida is killed by a giant stingray that leaped out of the water and struck her as she sunbathed on the deck of a boat. Stingrays practically never do that.

In the same week, a tourist visiting a friend in Manhattan was sleeping late when he was killed by a construction crane which toppled and crushed the friend’s townhouse. Cranes rarely topple.

Freak events always catch us off guard. We can’t even picture the weird things that can happen to us. The ones we can imagine, we try not to think about.

Last week, the invoice for my long-term care insurance arrived. It’s a payment I’d rather not make.  For that money,I could take a cruise or other trip, landscape the front yard or redecorate the living room. Why should I pay this premium when I feel good? Do I even want to hang around if I can’t do things for myself? Wouldn’t the money be better spent investing in Amazon or Apple stock? And on, and on…..

My husband died in a freak accident. So did the daughters of two of my dearest friends. No one who suffered a traumatic loss because of a random event ever feels truly safe again.

Most of the people I know don’t have long-term care insurance. They’re protected by the same illusions I used to wrap myself in.  Perhaps the difference between us is that they haven’t been on the loss side of a sudden freak event.  They’re not stalked by the feeling that disability or death can rob them of someone they love in an instant.

Temperament still inclines me towards optimism. In an ideal world, I’ll be vibrant and vital until my late nineties, then die quickly without pain or fuss.  In the meantime, I’ll just pay the premium.

Certainty Cuts off Growth

The poet Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass  “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am vast; I contain multitudes.”
I always thought this line was an open ended invitation to growth, a path that recognizes new ways of thinking about and doing things to incorporate learning. Whitman’s line runs along in my mind with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s from his essay Self-Reliance “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
So I’m impressed when someone says “I used to think this way, but the more I learn, the more I reallize there are many ways to look at something…and I’ve changed my mind about my original position.”
Some people can’t do that. They are stuck with an original position, often formed to protect a life’s narrative in which others are to blame for their shortcomings or ills. Parents get caught in this trap, as do spouses, bosses, children or anyone who is snared in another’s web of certainty.
When we start with ” I know…” instead of ” I believe…”, we shut outself off from new input. Someone who knows needs no more information. I believe people who ‘know’ have a difficult time maintaining friendships, love relationships and an ability to deal with a universe where change is the only constant.
I believe knowing you’re right means you’re stuck.

Great Grandma Did it Her Way

When Loretta moved from assisted living to nursing care at age 92, she knew the space around her bed would be smaller. She had to choose which framed photos to take with her.  She selected a group photo of her three children, eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren taken a few years ago at her 90th birthday party.

On the wall in front of her bed, her family placed Loretta’s university diplomas, her law degrees and a certificate designating her qualification to argue cases at the Supreme Court. So much of Loretta’s identity related to those accomplishments. She had been in the vanguard of women who had a career and raised a family before the two generations that followed her considered it commonplace.

While Loretta lived in the assisted living area of the home, she could still move around, meet the other people , eat in the dining room and participate in social activities. Now, she had trouble swallowing and needed to be fed with a tube. She had never been a whiner. Her mind was sharp: she knew she had to do this if she wanted to stay alive. Her first great granddaughter was taking the bar exam; Loretta wanted to live to congratulate her. Loretta stared at the diplomas on the wall in front of her and savored her memories.

Loretta is leaving a legacy for her family which no amount of money could have provided. In life, and now moving towards death, she is doing it her way. Frank Sinatra would have loved her!


Death is Out of the Closet

It used to be a simple choice – burial or cremation. Pine box or steel fortress. Ashes saved for lockets and urns or scattered to the wind or ocean. If you really wanted to get fancy, you could hire a plane and pilot to scatter them over the city of your choice.

The good news is that death is no longer a four letter word. It’s out of the closet and getting a lot of attention. Dying has even become part of the cornucopia of consumer decisions. We now have lots of choices for where we want to spend eternity.

Like to scuba or snorkel and want to be part of the surf and turf forever? A company will create an artifical memorial reef combining your ashes with environmentally safe cement and place the reef in your favorite diving spot.

Concerned about metal contamination of the soil? You can have a biodegradable coffin. Interested in downsizing? Costco sells coffins that do double duty as storage or seating while you’re still here. There’s even a company planning to bring ashes to the moon as soon as space shuttling becomes cost effective.

All this talk and choice about going green as we go out is good. Talking about death has been a taboo subject for too long.A good way to desensitize a subject that we fear and try not to think about is by treating it as part of the ordinary.  Placing it squarely in the marketplace of choices demystifies the subject and helps to allay some of the anxiety.

After all, if we’re going to be somewhere for eternity, we might as well have it exactly the way we want it.