More Than Money
Issue #22

Money and Death

Table of Contents

“The Soul Afraid of Dying Never Learns to Live”

by Leslie Dashew, Director of The Human Side of Enterprise in Atlanta , Georgia

Over 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.

As 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 financial training.

The 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!

Thus 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.

The 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 her first.

We 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:

If 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.

In 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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