Director of The Human Side of
a century ago, when most people grew up in extended families
on the farm, children witnessed the death of animals and
tended to the older members of the family who died right
in the home. Death was seen as part of the cycle: not
frighteningly unfamiliar. Although it represented loss,
it was natural and to be expected. Much of my professional
work is based on reminding people of these lost truths,
and encouraging more open communication about a range
of subjects associated with money and death.
a family business consultant, I've heard horror stories
of what happens when people do not face the discomfort
of their own mortality. I've watched the classic fight
between siblings over possessions, even small things.
These fights might have been prevented by some early family
meetings, a carefully drawn will, or even gifting before
death, and the siblings would
not have been left at odds at a very sad time in their
lives. I've seen more than one grieving widow who had
to figure out where her husband's will was, what he wanted
done with his business, and how she would pay bills...
all at a time when she is trying to cope with the loss
of her beloved. I've also seen the trauma when young inheritors
suffer major financial losses because discussions about
family wealth were avoided and they received insufficient
consequences of refusing to talk together about money
and death can be devastating. Yet, even with this professional
knowledge, it took me until my late 30's before I screwed
up the courage to say to my own father, "You know, Dad,
if something happened to you tomorrow, none of us would
know what you have, how it is to be disposed of, and what
goes to whom. Wouldn't it be nice if we could learn about
these assets while you are alive and have the benefit
of your wisdom in learning to manage them?" Well, my father
is a practical man. He saw the logic of what I was saying
and realized that his fear about sharing this information
was rooted in his old philosophy about ruining his kids'
motivation. With one son now a successful attorney, another
very wealthy in his own right,
and a daughter who was a successful international consultant
(all of whom work very hard)... he didn't have to worry
about demotivating us!
began the sharing of information. He even turned over
a few small assets to us to manage, which gave my brothers
and me the opportunity to learn how to be partners at
a relatively calm time - not at my father's death. I was
profoundly grateful for this opportunity for my father
and brothers to discuss the meaning of life and death,
our values and relationships, and all the practical challenges
that come with managing an inheritance intelligently.
full impact of these discussions was deeper than I could
have imagined. Facing our own mortality and that of others
can offer many lessons. Thinking deeply about death made
me ask myself, "If I were to die tomorrow, what would
be the most important thing to accomplish today?" Immediately,
I thought I'd be the best mother I can be for Baleigh.
Then I reflected on my lifestyle: I had been building
my business for the last year or two and if prospects
called me, I put them on my calendar... even if I had
planned an afternoon with my daughter. I realized then
that if motherhood was really my most important mission,
then I had to honor that time with my daughter and put
need to remember, I think, that the Chinese symbol for
"crisis" has two characters: danger and opportunity. Most
of us face the crisis of death with only "danger" on our
minds: the emotional loss, the potential for conflict
within the family, the change in status. But opening up
to the shift in status, the space that occurs with the
death and the new definitions of ourselves and our life purpose brings opportunities. As it
is written in the Tao Te Ching:
you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will
try to hold on to.
If you aren't afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can't achieve.
her pop song "The Rose," Bette Midler says essentially
the same thing: "The soul afraid of dying,
never learns to live." Yes! Those of us who are so fearful
of dying that we refuse to face death will step out more
hesitantly instead of embracing life with both arms.
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