Death is a topic few families want to discuss. And yet we must. We honour the dead when we discuss their life and we cannot do justice to their life without having a conversation with them while they are alive about what their life has meant. The alternative is that we guess, we wonder and we take from their life what we decide we must. I’ve heard people tell me that they’ve told their family to take from their life what is useful and leave the rest behind. That’s noble but frankly as a son it would be helpful to me to know what my parents thought was important about their life, not just what I found useful.
I know my daughter will pick and choose what she finds useful from my life. I am fine with that. But I would also like her to know what I thought was important about life, about my life. Why? Because life unfolds in ways we cannot predict, circumstances change and wisdom is required every step of the way. It’s one thing to pull out of a life what you found useful, it is another to hold in another place the life that was given as a gift. It could be that Lucy will find herself at middle age and be wondering where she should go, what she should do and to be able to pull into that conversation some of the insights of her parents. I would not want her to do as I do, to believe as I believe, but the rational that helped me make decisions might be a source of wisdom to her down the road. I’d like her to have my perspective in her back pocket. She may not need it, but I would like her to have it.
It’s a conversation most adult children don’t want to have with their aging parents. It feels morbid, perhaps even manipulative. I’ve heard people tell me that when they raise the issue they worry their parents are feeling like the father in the Prodigal Son story, this wayward child is looking for his inheritance a bit early! But if you can reassure your parents you aren’t after any material item of theirs, only their wisdom, it could be a fruitful conversation.
We avoid death. It reminds us of our own death and it reminds us that there will come a day when those we love will be gone, when we will be gone too. Best to avoid it, act like we will live forever.
One thing we can’t pass on, our stuff. Yes there are items we can hope our loved ones will make use of. I recently visited a woman of some means, she could afford any table she wants. Yet she holds on to a stained table, basic pine, because it was the kitchen table her boys would eat from. I know she hopes one of them will keep it and make use of it. But our children will not be interested in our files, our books, our fine China (they have their own), our photos (most of them anyway), and most certainly, NOT OUR SLIDES. We play this game where we hold on to these things hoping our children will keep them (they won’t) but avoiding a topic that may yield a legacy that could last for a generation or two.
You’d be amazed how often adults reference their parents and grandparents and mentors. Almost subconsciously someone will say, “I made a change that my mom would be proud of, it’s something she would do, it’s something she did!” Or, “I find myself in the woods a lot now, just like my Dad used to. I don’t know why I do that but I know my Dad would understand. I feel connected to him when I am there, I feel connected to something when I walk in the woods.”
We inherit so much from those we love. The stuff that clutters up our homes is really a distraction from the matters of the heart that we really do take with us wherever we go. To add to that list of inheritances why not ask what we should take with us now, while we have the chance to ask. It’s a gift.