Discussing wishes beforehand can ease the stress of losing loved ones

Leila Nelson
Leila Nelson Submitted photo

Leila Nelson and her husband had just evacuated from Hilton Head Island to Atlanta for Hurricane Floyd when they got the news that her mother had died.

Her father had died two years earlier. Now, it was the end of an era. Both parents were gone, and on top of the emotional pain, Nelson and her siblings were left with the task of going through their mother's apartment.

Nelson met her brother, who lived in Massachusetts, and her sister, who lived in Atlanta, at their mother's 1,800-square-foot apartment in Cincinnati.

They spent three or four days going through items in the home, room by room. As they went through boxes and drawers, they told stories about their parents. They learned things they never knew about their mother and father, and about each other. They laughed, and they cried.

Nelson and her sister had helped their mother move into the apartment after their father passed away. When she moved, their mother got new sofas and a new dining set. But most of the furniture was what Nelson and her siblings had in their home as children, a combination of art deco and 1970s pieces. Their bedroom set was gorgeous blonde pieces from the 1940s.

But the antique furniture wasn't what the grown children were really seeking. Aside from getting the stuff out of the apartment in a short time period so they didn't have to continue paying rent, they were looking for the real treasures -- the sentimental items that could not be thrown out.

They struck gold when one of the siblings opened a dresser drawer and found a pile of letters their parents had written back and forth to one another when their father was overseas during World War II. The letters shared their love story and offered a history lesson to the younger generations.

"It's part of a legacy of the family," Nelson said. "Some people pass along jewelry or art or whatever. This is part of the Johnson legacy."

Their parents had not allocated certain items for particular people, so it was left up to them to decide who got what. The three siblings decided that the oldest, Nelson, would get to choose what she wanted first.

She knew right away that she wanted the 1970s chair she had always loved, which was fine with her siblings, since they both hated it.

Her brother picked out a few small things. He kept a portrait of their mother that was done in New Orleans and all of their father's awards.

Nelson's sister took one art piece, the teak dining room set, their mother's china and some knickknacks.

They divided up the Christmas tree ornaments for the grandchildren.

Then there was the coveted family tree artwork. A special gift the kids gave their parents for their 50th wedding anniversary, it was a framed collage of photos that were made to look like a tree. At the bottom was a black-and-white photograph of their parents dressed in a tuxedo and ball gown. Growing up from the bottom of the tree were photos of the couple's children, leading all the way up to photos of a grandchild graduating from college.

Just like the letters, the family tree was meaningful to everyone. A professional organizer, Nelson used a trick she has suggested to families she works with who are going through a similar situation. She proposed that the three siblings rotate the artwork every few years. Her brother had it for a few years. She has had it now for a few years. And her sister will get it next. They do the same with the love letters.

Talking about death with family members is difficult, but experts agree -- the best way to avoid conflicts later is to have a frank discussion in advance.

Nelson said family members need to ascertain how much attachment people have to certain items now so they don't end up fighting about them later.

One of Nelson's clients, Marilee Smith of Portland, Ore., said the conversations she and her brother had with their parents prior to their deaths were invaluable.

"It was hard to do, but it was easier in the long run than not having a clue and feeling really lost," Smith said. "We knew what to do and what they wanted, and we were able to honor them that way. ... It was really nice to be able to have a dialogue for what was important and what wasn't."

Smith said it was clear to her and her brother that they needed to have a discussion because their parents' health began to fail. But, she said, any time is a good time to have the conversation.

She suggested starting out by saying, "I've been looking at my own stuff and putting together a will. Do you have any preferences?"

"Even if you don't get a receptive answer, you've planted the seed," she said. "I think for one thing, we all have a tendency to live in a state of denial -- like this isn't going to happen. But my parents knew. They knew they were failing. We all knew. It was like, 'We might as well bring it up.' But we had talked about it even before they got sick."

Smith said she and her brother also asked their parents what kind of funeral services they wanted to have. It can be difficult to talk about this, but it can really help.

"I think sometimes it falls on the kids to say, 'Let's hope we don't have to do this soon, but let's have this conversation,' " Smith said. "What made the process easier was being able to have those conversations with both parents before they passed."

Helena Place senior living community relations manager Rose Ewing, along with Jennifer Redmond of United Hospice of Beaufort and Dan Bennett of Lowcountry Cremation, periodically offers a "Planning Ahead & Five Wishes" seminar in the Lowcountry. The free seminar helps participants create a document that conveys what their medical, personal, emotional and spiritual wishes are. A notary is available during these classes to notarize the document, making it a legal living will.

Included in the seminar is a guide called "Five Wishes," which encourages participants to discuss their wishes with their loved ones before they get sick. Do they want their loved ones to allow them to remain in pain but coherent? Or would they prefer to be given pain medicine that may make them too drowsy to speak? What lengths do they want doctors to go to keep them alive?

Participants can be specific with their requests, such as saying they wish to have someone with them whenever possible, to have their hands held and to be talked to, to have people praying next to them or to die at home. They can even put in writing that they wish family members would make peace with each other before they die.

The document participants create from the "Five Wishes" guide must be signed and witnessed. An original copy should be kept in the home rather than in a safe deposit box.

Ewing also said she encourages the seminar participants to let their heirs know about any life insurance policies. If loved ones don't know about the policies, they won't receive benefits. Life insurance policies can change like mortgages do, so adult children should know where all of that documentation is.

"It is an awkward topic, but it is one that does need to be addressed," Ewing said. "Say you have three children yourself. One's hysterical. One wants to do everything imaginable to keep you alive, and one wants to just let you go naturally. Well, what do you want? Nobody knows unless you put it down in writing. It's a difficult topic, but it's one that we're all going to face. ... It's so much easier to do it when you're well and healthy than when you've been diagnosed with a critical illness or you're in the hospital."

Beaufort professional organizer and daily money manager Roxanne Waters Cheney said most people avoid planning for death. And when it comes to the end of life, she said there's a big gap between what people say they want to happen and what actually happens.

Cheney teaches a class through Osher Lifelong Learning Institute called "All You Need is Love and These 25 Documents."

She said wills and trusts are usually taken care of, but there's myriad other documents and details heirs will need, such as a list of bank accounts, a list of usernames and passwords, a list of insurance policies, personal family and medical histories, marriage license, divorce papers, property records, any papers related to pre-planning of funeral, any debts owed or accounts receivable, tax returns, titles to vehicles, stock certificates, savings bonds, a notification list (friends, lawyers, bankers to notify in case of death), and a DD214 for military members.

"My goal is to help them have the conversation and to take the information and put it in a format that would be easily accessible," Cheney said. "That has become an increasingly important part of my business."

Marilee Smith's parents lived on Hilton Head for more than 30 years. They died about two years ago, within seven months of each other, first her father, then her mother. He was in his 90s. She was in her 80s. They both had chronic illnesses, but she and her brother were not expecting their mother to die so soon.

"In a time that was very overwhelming, just from the basis of losing both parents at the same time and dealing with 30 years of stuff, (professional organizer Nelson) was invaluable to me," Smith said, adding that it was difficult to go through sentimental objects such as pictures.

Smith said Nelson suggested a few times that they put something away and go through it at another time when they weren't so emotional.

"My mother was the keeper of the family history so there were generations of photos and stuff that we had to go through and sort out and divvy up. It was a very emotional time. Plus, we had an eye for putting the house on the market too, so we felt like we had a time frame."

Smith had only three weeks to go through everything, and it was a large house. Her brother was working, so it was very stressful -- she had regular acupuncture to help.

There were a number of moments that stopped Smith in her tracks. Some of the things her parents saved were really touching: Plaster of Paris handprints from her and her brother when they were about 1 year old; their grandfather's college fraternity pins, and his medals and awards from World War I; their father's medals and papers from World War II; old photos and scrapbooks; their grandmother's wedding gown and some of her jewelry and watches; a lock of their mother's baby hair; everyone's baby shoes; and all the letters and cards she and her brother had ever sent their parents.

"My biggest tip would be: (Professional) support is incredibly helpful, be it Leila or somebody else, to help kind of keep focus and to take breathers and to take your time to read the birthday cards," Smith said. "You have to do some of that. It's not like going into somebody else's house and cleaning it out. It's a process of closure and remembering and saying goodbye, and that has to be honored."

Follow reporter Amy Coyne Bredeson at