Conscious Living and Dying: Death and Depth – part 2

Japanese Garden at DBG

The first part of this post was about death and depth, depth as in “deep end” of something (yes, I likened it to the familiar swimming pool, with those rope float dividers) that is distant from us, unfamiliar, unknown and just plain scary.  So now I will continue the analogy with a different topography, but along the same theme of that invisible mystery which spooks many of us. . . 

For those of us who have experienced earthquakes, we have a different sense of the relationship between what is the visible ground that appears to be solid and the deeper ground where stirrings can cause a shearing away of that surface, revealing new ground, new possibilities, even amidst massive destruction.

Of course there is a choice about how to react when the ground breaks open.  We can be careful to try and repair it, admiring the petrified crust and not wanting to upset any apparent order or appearances.  Or we can break through the crust, willing to fall hard and break through the known into the unknown.

Into the depth of a center.  Symbolically and mythologically speaking, there can be many places which can serve as a deep center, a mountain or a tree, which one could ascend or which can be reached only after a descent, the undoing of the apparent, exterior, the superficial.  Where is the center?  Well, that depends of course.  Often we simply fail to slow down and consider the obvious question because we are so accustomed to looking past it, well beyond where we are at the moment.  What is it that we know or we think that we know?  I’m thinking of a quote from the poet and essayist Wendell Berry here (this from his collection of essay Standing By Words at 50) about the shortcomings of language – “It is not knowledge that enforces this realization [that you cannot act in your own best interest unless you espouse or serve a higher interest] but the humbling awareness of the insufficiency of knowledge, of mystery.”

Perhaps that mystery is the center for which we long and the voyage to which we dread.  Again there is a choice – to do our won spiritual excavation to uncover truth, the meaning in our won life . . . .  or we can admire the relics of another’s questioning or their excavation, from the comfort of an armchair.  What does it take to move into uncertainty and “go with it?”  Sometimes we don’t have a choice.  This is the dying process.  I’ll include another quote, this one by Vladimir Maximov:

All is mere ashes and dust-

All except the Temple within us.

It is ours and with us forever.

(From Henry Corbin’s 1986 book Temple and Contemplation.)

So if that movement, that moving away from and toward something, is in terms of a center, it is a place where we may realize that we are no longer separate from it but rather identify it as part of a larger whole of existence.  In this way conscious living, along with conscious death, can be our final act of creation in this life.  If death is a transcendence, of words or being, the question follows “to where?”  I had the pleasure of reading “Creation and Recreation” by the late University of Toronto professor Northrop Frye, who observed: “Every unit is a whole to which various parts are subordinate, and every unit is in turn part of a larger whole.” [Creation and Recreation at 73.]

If death is a return, a remembering, a completion, then many of us may feel stranded by a sense of things undone, words left unspoken during a now-deceased dear one’s lifetime.  Guilt, resentment, helplessness, remorse are common feelings here.  These may arise from a denial of death, that we will indeed have time to finish our life to our own satisfaction.   I have seen this approach in more than a few people.  Many of us have never lived liked this before, so how can we be expected to change all this in preparation for a death that is most certainly not desired?  It is difficult to determine when the time of sickness transitions to the time of dying, but an inability to accept one’s life seems to ensure that it will be much more difficult to accept impending death.  Death is a final act, unknown and mysterious, yet it happens every day, all over the world.  It is a final act, an ending, that realization that someone is “over and done with,” but our experience of course tells us otherwise.  In one of the chapters of “Who Dies?” Stephen and Ondrea Levine look at how to finish business with someone who is no longer around?  They note that the answer is always the same – one need not see that person in order to send them love, in order to finish business the other person doesn’t even need to acknowledge your presence, much less the process you are sharing.  Like other types of forgiveness, this type of work is done for its own sake and is not dependent on any “results.”

To conclude this, I will loop back around to that idea of the deep center – which we can travel a path to in our lifetime if we choose, as part of our conscious living, or which we can travel to as part of the final destination in our physical body.  The Levines attribute the following quote from Albert Einstein:

A human being is a part of a whole, called by us “universe,” a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Levine at 183.  Just a gentle reminder that Einstein spent his life searching for a unified field. . .

Depending on how we look at it, we have been practicing dying all of our lives.  When we get stuck on or attached to particular outcomes based on our expectations or who we think we are  – we suffer.  Perhaps we can practice this living and dying mindfully, so we can look beyond those prison walls and lessen our suffering in this life.  At the very least, practicing it will make our dying and most likely the acceptance of our loved ones’ dying, much easier for us.

©Barbara Cashman 2013     www.DenverElderLaw.org

Conscious Living and Dying: Death and Depth – part 1

an empty bench

What is death?  Who dies? What if the fear of death is a simple reaction to our lifelong fear of the unknown or our indifference to immortality?

In my work as an attorney, I have many types of conversations with clients and others about life and death matters.  I wouldn’t have it any other way! For many of us, these conversations and topics about human mortality, the value and essence of a life, and other such topics, often have no other venue for discussion.  While many people may think that such topics are the more appropriate domain of medical professionals and the clergy, I know from my experience that this is the exception and certainly not the rule.  Our compartmentalization of modern life has resulted in so many walls erected in our daily existence that it is often difficult to imagine our lives without those dividers.  But make no mistake, those dividers are of our own making and while they may serve us in many respects, they tend to make us myopic, nearsighted in our assessment what our life is for.

Those dividers are sometimes like the rope floats in a swimming pool, marking the shallow end of the pool from the end of the pool that gets progressively deeper and darker.  The shallow end is the safe, visible, transparent and – surely with so many people splashing around in it – the “place to be.”  We often think of the noise and din of that shallow end as just how things are, even if we might question what all the commotion is about.  Certainly some of the noise must be resulting from happiness and joy, right. . . .?

I like the late theologian Paul Tillich’s two meanings of “deep” here: that it means either the opposite of shallow, or the opposite of high.  He also insightfully observed that there can be no depth without a way to that depth.

What is this place, this world in which we find ourselves?  When we surround ourselves with noise and busyness, it is difficult to remember that silence and repose are also part of our world.  These things are unfamiliar to us and often uncomfortable, painful even, when we are so accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the shallow end.  When we encounter the silence and the repose, we might also encounter unfamiliar questions.  What is our place in the world? Where do we find right relationship to our own imperfections?  Here the shallow end, with its easily recognizable surroundings, forms a barrier to us seeing beyond.  Many of us have seen a glimpse of that deep end and we know it’s “out there” somewhere.  Some of us even venture into it, but in order to experience it, we must shed the trappings of the familiar, the armor around which we have encased ourselves, the known and the identifiable of the shallow end must be abandoned in order to move toward the depth.

Death, the process of dying to be more precise, can be regarded as a letting go.  It is the one certainty of our lives and paradoxically the thing we seem to know the least about, hence the “mortal fear.”  If we think about the millions of people who have preceded us, oops, I mean billions – according to demographer Carl Haub the number is 108 billion.  Read the blog post on the Discover magazine site here.   Different wisdom traditions have many similar teachings about what happens during this process of letting go.  The late professor Mircea Eliade has written extensively about common aspects and themes in this regard. The theme “liberation and letting go” is the title of the latest issue of Parabola magazine.  In that issue I especially liked Andrew Holocek’s article “Preparing to Die,” in which he observes “in many ways, the entire spiritual path is about letting go.  It’s death in slow motion.”  This is what many folks would consider mindful living, mindful of our present attention and the detail that everything changes and that, of course, we will die someday.

Holocek examines the Buddhist notions of bardos, the “spaces in-between” that include the spiritual stages of dying, noting there is a body that dies and then there is another body, the very subtle body, which does not die.  I won’t go into the geography or cartography of soul migration here, but I have cited to Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s “Who Dies?” and Kathleen Dowling Singh’s book “The Grace in Dying: How We Are Transformed Spiritually As We Die” in an October post  about my father’s death.   The topic here is about depth, and why we are so afraid of it. . . .

©Barbara Cashman 2013     www.DenverElderLaw.org

December 10th is Colorado Gives Day!

Marble Snow

This year’s tagline for Colorado Gives Day is “Give Where You Live.”  Many of us want to make a difference in our community and sometimes we think about this in terms of the perceived biggest impact –like  helping out the poorest of the poor on a global scale, like with The Heifer Project.  There are many such worthwhile causes to support, but Colorado Gives Day is about supporting local charities that help the local community.  That kind of giving makes a different connection within a closer community. Giving money and time to causes we support tends to make us happier, more engaged people – that has been established by many studies.  The bigger issue is whether happier people give or giving makes people happier.  The causal relationship there hasn’t really been established by those studies, but does it really matter?  Giving is a way of showing gratitude for what we have and generosity of spirit in sharing.  Every wisdom tradition I am familiar with gives a central place to charity, to sharing what we have with those who are in need.

One meaning of charity comes from the Hebrew word tzedakah, which means justice or righteousness, based on the idea that our possessions, like our persons, are not really our own but are lent to us, entrusted to us for safekeeping.  That safekeeping could be considered like a trust, where the person in possession of those worldly goods is more like a trustee, charged with a duty of giving to those in need.  In Buddhism, giving is essential and is recognized as part of basic human goodness.  Giving to others can be a means of transcending the limitations of the self.  I like the emphasis on giving as a two-way street, that giving is only made possible when someone is able to receive a gift.  The act of giving itself requires a community of at least two persons – a giver and a receiver.

Charitable giving is a special kind of giving in this regard as it is one that is typically given without expectation of reward.  Perhaps this is the basis from which the happiness arises.  So often our expectations get in the way of our enjoyment of life and plans for happiness.  Maybe giving for its own sake is its own perfect reward in this way.  The broad definition of charity involves giving not just of money but of time and also a certain reservation of judgment about others’ situations.

Maybe giving financial support to a local charity can accomplish all of these things in ways that far away charitable or relief efforts cannot.  I am not suggesting answers here – only questions!

Last year I suggested three charities I am familiar with from my work with elder and disabled communities.  Once again, ColoradoGives.org has a really helpful website to help you pick a charity to support by “giving where you live.”  Check it out here.

I donate some of my volunteer lawyer time to Metro Volunteer Lawyers, so I think they’re a great cause to support.  Click here to donate to them. I am one donation short of being a five-gallon donor at Bonfils Blood Center, but many people who want to donate are unable to, so you can support them financially here.  Finally, the Life Quality Institute is a local nonprofit that provides important educational and outreach services about palliative and end of life care that can ease a person’s physical, emotional and spiritual pain associated with the end of life.  You can find out more or donate to them here.

One nonprofit I didn’t previously know about – weecycle – is the beneficiary of a local attorney’s fundraising effort.  You can read and watch a video about Carlos Migoya’s Charitable Beard on SoloinColo here (and you can see for yourself that yes, his beard is of biblical proportions!) .  Give the search capabilities at www.coloradogives.org  a try – you can donate to local dance companies, a homeless and runaway youth shelter, educational foundations, food banks, the range is wide in purpose and is statewide.

©Barbara Cashman 2013     www.DenverElderLaw.org

Digital Assets After You’re Gone – Digital Assets in Decedent’s Estates

The Call

 

Part III: This post is about digital assets after you have passed away.  What happens with your digital assets?  This question is simpler to explain (notice I did not use the term “answer”) in the decedent estate administration context, but the answer is a lawyerlike response of “it depends.”

If you would like to view a fun infographic blog post, check out Linda Rosenthal’s post about digital estate planning here.   Okay, let’s start with the basics.

  1. What is Digital Property?

Any online account you may own or any file that is storedon your computer, another device or in the cloud.

2. What might an estate planning attorney want to advise a client about digital assets in the EP context?

Many of us who practice law in this area use a “letter of instruction” as an organizational tool to help a personal representative do their job.  It is not a legal document but rather an organizational document designed to help make the job of the personal representative (PR) easier.  Many people have experience with trying to locate assets, insurance policies, investment accounts, etc., that are nowhere to be found after a person dies.  This is what the letter of instruction is designed to flesh out.  Many people assume that if they have a will or a trust, that this document alone will suffice to guide them to assets.  This is not necessarily so and is often not the case at all.  The will names the PR and describes the assets and property of the person who wrote the will and usually dictates the method of distribution of the property, but often a will or a trust will usually not give a PR any indication as to the identityor nature of many of the assets, how they can be located and accessed, along with other important details.

There are several services online to put into place if you want to make arrangements via persons other than those whom you have selected as your agent or personal representative.   I think it is crucial that a letter of instruction contain a digital access as well as digital assets listing so that the agent, PR or survivors can identify the “known universe.”  How is that universe constellated?  Look to Kipling’s six serving men to assist here: what, why, and when, and how, where and who.

  • Computer storage of information (hard drive or cloud-based)
  • Email accounts, usernames and passwords
  • Online Banking information
  • web domains and the like (internet real estate)
  • intellectual property (e.g., blogs, pictures, etc.)

For better or worse, digital assets that have value can be transferred or disposed of relatively easily via a will or trust.  Management of those assets is another story.  How can estate planners stay on top of the ever-changing landscape?!  How about a special digital asset trust?  You certainly don’t want the private information contained in your will.  I just probated a will where I had to redact the testator’s SSN.  The trust’s ownership of the assets will survive the death of a testator, and (in states outside Colorado where estates are public record) remain private.  Trusts can be amended relatively easily, and a special successor trustee (like a digital asset management company) may be named to manage the assets. This is just one idea to consider among several alternatives.

3. What are some of the difficulties to consider when devising an estate  plan which includes digital assets?

Most states do not have any law that applies particularly to digital assets in the probate context.  In our legal system case law can develop in new areas of the law but a preferable means of  a cogent legal response to this ever-changing landscape would be to devise a new “regime” for such assets by including them in each state’s probate laws.  There is of course a difficulty of the variety of each state’s probate laws, and this mobility is relevant in our mobile American culture.  This effort, a uniform state law regarding digital assets, is what the Uniform Law Commissioners (ULC) is engaged in presently.  In the meantime however, we must consider the lack of clearly applicable law, the uncertainty of existing law, the prevention of identity theft for online activities all in the context of taking steps to make sure that a person’s wishes relating to digital assets are carried out in the way  intended.  This area is a natural place for the ULC to get involved, as the need for uniformity across state lines, along with the consideration of applicable federal laws regarding the internet requires a considered approach.  In the durable power of attorney context, the issues are much more challenging than in the decedent estate context.

4. Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets

There are important distinctions between fiduciary management of digital assets when a person is alive  and the management of those same assets after a person has passed away.  The situation appears to be much more problematic as they concern management of assets while a person is alive and perhaps incapacitated.  The situation is clearer and a bit more manageable as it concerns decedents’ estates.  I previously wrote a blogpost about social media and mourning, here’s an article about a new feature on Facebook that allows people to memorialize, pay tribute to and otherwise grieve on Facebook.

I will have another post on this topic before year’s end – updating our digital accounts and assets should be on everyone’s year-end to do list!

©Barbara Cashman 2013     www.DenverElderLaw.org