Yours, Mine, Ours and Theirs Part 2: Opening the Conversation

Spring Flowers

Spring Flowers

This article from last June in The Huffington Post cites a Pew Research Center number from 2011 which states that a whopping 42% of American adults have a step relationship – as in step-parent, step- or half-sibling, or step-child.  I suspect the numbers have risen since that study….

It is not surprising that with the large number of remarriages involving children from a prior relationship, some of the basic priorities in estate planning can be much more fluid and complex.  In the title of this series I have added “theirs” at the end of “yours, mine and ours” – and this is for the simple reason that, in my experience, many spouses in a blended family relationship wish to preserve for their own descendants a certain portion of their estate.  In my experience with blended family estate planning, many spouses in blended family later life relationships consider their children’s inheritance as something separate in a way that few people married only to each other and with common children have ever done.  So let’s begin with identifying some of the terrain we will cover.

The Questions. . . .

What are the common goals that both spouses have in mind?

First off is the obvious question – how to provide for your adult children while taking care of your surviving spouse?  Considering things like life insurance, retirement benefits and other available resources can be immensely helpful, particularly when these resources are coordinated in such a way as to meet the common identified goals.  Since I represent primarily older adults with grown children, I won’t be looking at the second family and providing for them along with a spouse as well as from a first marriage?  How do we balance providing for children with providing for the surviving spouse?  Well, I must repeat that lawyer mantra here: it depends.  The fact is – there is no template for the values, choices, or goals of spouses in a blended family and how they provide for their respective children.  Yes, life is getting more complicated all the time it seems, but I would submit that with the exploration of some basic information, many otherwise inevitable conflicts can be avoided or at least minimized!  This is why it is so important to identify these questions that can loom large and cause much anxiety.

The Nature of Potential Conflict . . .

When a couple can identify the goals and values of their planning, developing a strategy for meeting them can become a bit simpler (note – I did not say easy – there is a huge difference between simple and easy!).  Identifying the source of conflict that can arise, which can threaten those values and goas the couple has identified, is a simple but powerful way of bringing more daylight into the conversation.  Talking about personality conflicts, communication styles and how to allocate scarce resources – be they common or separate resources, can have a positive impact on the planning process.  If this all sounds like a bit too much, I would submit that this groundwork laying is imperative and indeed makes for going early on in the process.  Perhaps you are familiar with the expression to go slow at the beginning to go fast later.  Reminds me of a favorite Ella Fitzgerald song!

The Varying Styles of Conflict Among People . . .

Important to consider here are some of the stumbling blocks that many of us place in front of this conversation, as well as those which may arise and otherwise derail a constructive and wanted conversation on this topic.  What I am talking about here is how each of us deals with conflict in terms of how we communicate in the midst of conflict.  There are five basic conflict communication styles:

  • Confrontation
  • Accommodation
  • Compromise
  • Conciliation
  • Avoidance

Many of us do not exclusively rely on a single style here, and that is a good thing!  What the conflict styles can teach us – and how this conversation can enrich and deepen a relationship among spouses – is about values (the first item I wrote about above) and how they shape who we are and how we behave.   Our perceptions and assumptions about who we are, who our spouse is and how the children of the blended family are included in the planning (either directly or indirectly) can be valuable ways to explore the depth of a relationship and chart a course through otherwise troubled waters.

I’m not saying that a plan is going to be 100% foolproof – I would not say that because everything is subject to change.  What I’m saying is that it is better to talk about the elephant in the room, to identify its function for shedding light on our goals and values of the spousal and family relationships we have.

More to come!

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Elderhood, Exile and Pilgrimage – part two

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This is a continuation of my post from last week. . . . (and also a celebration of three enjoyable years of blogging on this WordPress website of mine)!

Pilgrimage is also a way of separating oneself, often in the company of other like-minded people, from the everyday and the ordinary, to discover what is there for us to find beyond or underneath our everyday existence and its often commonplace occurrences and numbing familiarity.

The pilgrimage, which I characterize here as beginning with exile, can itself be a journey to wilderness as well as from it, depriving us of all of our devices, props, comforts and habits of doingness.  What we were previously unable to see in our life, through our way of being (often obscured and covered over by all our ego-defenses) can be laid bare and render us  . . . . exposed and vulnerable.  This is how many of us experience a health crisis (young or old) and this is how meaning can creep in.  It seems to require the emptiness of that wilderness of exile, for there is no place for it to be (be experienced) when to rest of our life is already full or otherwise protecting us from the uncertain, the unknown.

Meaning can move through our lives in a qualitative way, even when it may or may not move in a chronological way.  I’m thinking here of the meaning, what Elizabeth MacKinlay refers to as the movement from provisional to final meanings.  The Spiritual Dimension of Ageing (Springer 2001) at 153-65.

So, what then is meaning, which seems to be the outcome in some respects of the movement from exile toward return (or the movement between them) which could be characterized as a ritual of pilgrimage?  Sometimes meaning comes from waiting in the desert, in a darkness of unknowing with an emptiness, a lack of the expected and familiar of the commonplace having been taken from us.

Here is where I return to the place where I started – the quote from Thomas Merton about wilderness, discovering our wildness in our waging of the battle against despair.  I turn now to a faithful companion, Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning:

There is nothing in this world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst of condition, as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.  There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

Man’s Search for Meaning (Washington Square 1969) at 164.

On the topic of pilgrimage as a decidedly anti-modern undertaking, I think of the mysteries which we often take for granted with the shrug of our shoulders.  Take broken heart syndrome for example, an otherwise unexplained phenomenon in which an otherwise healthy surviving spouse of a long term marriage dies within a year of their life partner.  Sometimes it is too difficult to discover (as suggested by Dr. Frankl) the meaning in our suffering.  What about pilgrimage and its relation to healing?  Retired anthropology professor Michael Winkelman writes this about religious healing:  “The linkages of symbols and physiology provide therapeutic effects in religious healing by aligning individuals with cultural expectations, values and beliefs. “  He notes further that the basic mechanisms of symbolic healing involve the following processes:

  • Establishment of a generalized mythic world;
  • Persuasion of the patient to particularize his or her problems within that mythic world;
  • Attachment of the patient’s emotions to symbols from the mythic world; and
  • Manipulation of those symbols to assist in emotional transactions.

Supernatural as Natural: A Biocultural Approach to Religion, M. Winkelman & J. Baker (Pearson 2010) at 171.

Metaphors have the power to heal and can themselves serve as a vehicle for the pilgrimage, for a return to meaning.  A return to meaning? Yes, I would make the observation as one who is rather fond of springtime pilgrimages to distant places.  Sometimes all we need is not a change of scenery but rather a change of the eyes through which we see our worlds.  I’ll quote next from an observation raised by the English poet William Blake and discussed by (another English poet and commentator) Kathleen Raine:

For Blake experience was not a learning but a forgetting (and Wordsworth too so presents it), a loss of vision, a narrowing of consciousness, or as Blake puts it, a falling into the “deadly sleep” of materialism, to become oblivious to that beauty seen with the eyes of innocence.

 K. Raine, The Underlying Order and Other Essays (B. Keeble, ed.) at 67.

Perhaps the pilgrimage of living and of elderhood, when experienced as a movement from exile to return, is essentially a tapping into the human story, the meaning, which we already know – but have managed to forget or lose sight of along our way, our life’s path.

©Barbara Cashman  2015   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Grief, Gratitude and Meaning in Dying

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Denver Botanic Gardens in July

 

Okay, maybe you were looking for an upbeat happy-faced Thanksgiving post from me? Well, I have advised clients and written in blog posts that it is a great time to have “the conversation” about end of life wishes when family members gather for holidays like. . . Thanksgiving! So here is the themed post for this year’s holiday: grief is part of life and so, part of death – whether it is grief around a life change like a loss of a relationship or status or the loss of a loved one’s or the prospect of losing one’s own life.

Why is this so difficult to talk about? No, I don’t mean this as a rhetorical question, rather as a question to ask each other and ourselves – to discuss individually and collectively in our communities.  The time is right for this.  Medical technology has extended our longevity such that some are now seriously questioning the purpose of such longevity.  I’m thinking of my first Dementia and Memory post of Oct. 1, 2014, where I cite the article “Why I Hope to Die at 75” by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel.  The obvious answer to the question is that death is a great beyond, an unknown for the vast majority of us.  Reminds me of an observation by my favorite ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus:

Whoever cannot seek

The unforeseen sees nothing,

For the known way

Is an impasse.

Fragments, #7 at 7, Brooks Haxton, trans. (2001: Penguin).

Is it because the fear of death is nearly universal?  Ernest Becker, the late anthropologist and author of the 1973 groundbreaking book The Denial of Death, seemed to think so!  This fear is based on the “problem” of the body, how to manage our physical existence and its limitations.  There responses to this come in a myriad of forms: religious, spiritual, moral (philosophy), and ethical – just to name a few.

I would submit that we (as in post-modern American culture) are at an impasse in the debate about death, its meaning and the prospect of suffering as part of the dying process.  Evidence of this is clear from the recent death, via means of doctor assistance, of twenty-nine year old Brittany Maynard.  I find it interesting that the subjects of these types of debate are all young women: Karen Ann Quinlan was 22 when she ingested alcohol with the tranquilizer; Nancy Cruzan was 24 when she was in the auto crash that left her in a “vegetative state;” while Terri Schiavo was 26 when she suffered the heart attack which deprived her brain of oxygen for several minutes.  These are some of the women whose fates have informed the course of development of the law concerning advance medical directives.  What impact will Brittany Maynard’s death have on the state of upheaval surrounding the quality of medical care?  Is this question one that applies across the board to us regardless of our age as adults?

In his article in response to Ms. Maynard and the rising calls for doctor-assisted end of life measures, “Doctor-Assisted Suicide Is Unethical and Dangerous,” Dr. Ira Byock observes

American health care is undergoing tumultuous changes and showing signs of strain. A recent Institute of Medicine report attests to persistent deficiencies in care and social support that seriously ill people and their families experience. Witnessing the suffering of our relatives, friends and, for clinicians, our patients, gives rise to moral distress.  It is not surprising that support for physician-assisted suicide is also rising. The age-old dictum that doctors must not kill patients can appear antiquated, out of touch with hard realities, and even heartless.

One way to look at the euthanasia is as some kind of triumph over the tyranny of death, in that means can be selected to hasten its progress so as to minimize suffering.  But this really begs the question – it is the challenge of meaning, in how we live our lives as well as how we choose to die.

We even speak about death in physical terms – as a wall, a door or a window. Is our imaginative vocabulary so limited?  Why is it we have such a difficult time in grappling with the question of meaning in our life – is it because we do not wish to contemplate it in light of its physical end, our mortality? Or is the question backwards?  I find an observation by Miguel de Unamuno in The Tragic Sense of Life helpful here:

In the most secret recess of the spirit of the man who believes that death will put an end to his personal consciousness and even to his memory forever, in that inner recess, even without his knowing it perhaps, a shadow hovers, a vague shadow lurks, a shadow of the shadow of uncertainty, and, while he tells himself: “There’s nothing for it but to live this passing life, for there is no other!” at the same time he hears, in this most secret recess, his own doubt murmur: “Who knows? . . . . ”  He is not sure he hears aright, but he hears.

It seems that a major strand of euthanasia seems to presuppose that there is no meaning in the dying process, that it is simply needless suffering.  This is the question that is not addressed by euthanasia, this is the fear that is laid bare and yet still rejected.

And what if true mastery is not based upon the art of living fully, deliberately and mindfully – but rather on the art of dying well?  Indeed, I would say that is an excellent topic for another blog post.  So if you think gratitude is an important expression of being in the world, whether through your heart or your mind or both – I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!

©Barbara Cashman 2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org