Hear how four Wells Fargo employees discussed difficult topics with aging parents and siblings and reached resolution.
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Transcript:[Michael Liersch:] Hello. My name is Michael Liersch. We’re going to have a really different conversation here on the About Money podcast, about how we help our families and ourselves have tough conversations about the end of life. And the three colleagues joining me are going to get emotional along with me about what those conversations sound like.
So when we’re thinking about these challenging conversations and how uncomfortable they are, I’m just going to have to ask this group who’s willing to get started, who’s willing to share their story about an end-of-life decision or a conversation they had with a family member so that our listeners can benefit from what worked and what didn’t about that. Who’s willing to share?[Andrea Wortham:] I’ll go, Michael. [Michael Liersch:] OK, Andrea. [Andrea Wortham:] I’ll start us off. So my mother passed away. It’ll be three years ago next month. Her health had been declining for about six months, and I’m one of four sisters, so all of us played a role. We knew what her will was. We knew how she wanted to be cremated and the basics of her wishes, right?
So there was no fighting. It wasn’t confusing. But I think what struck me was how profound grief can be. But until you go through it, I think you don’t, you can’t fathom how it’s going to affect you and how difficult things can be. Just, you know, you’re not just packing up the garage, you’re packing up a life of memories, and you’re not going to get 20 boxes done in half a day. You might get one done and you might cry for five hours. And, you know, things just get a lot harder. Or you might be OK, but your siblings are falling apart. So even though papers and the legal aspects were fine and organized, we’re still dealing with things. And it really affects your relationships with your siblings or whoever’s left.
But in some families, a death of a loved one can really bring up a lot of trauma or baggage. There might be step-families involved. It’s just a lot to handle. So I’m incredibly grateful that she managed to get the paperwork that we needed done in advance. And so we just, you know, had the messy stuff still to deal with. But it didn’t involve lawyers. It didn’t involve delaying, you know, the probate and all of that. So.[Michael Liersch:] It’s interesting because to your point, a lot of people think about the paperwork, right? Let’s get my beneficiary designations in order, my will, if it’s relevant, my estate plan. And what I hear you saying is those things are definitely important and critical. However, that still doesn’t mitigate the emotional feelings, all the things you have to go through.
Can you give us an example of while your mother was still living, was there anything that you felt like could have been done better that you can share with our listeners?[Andrea Wortham:] Right. Honestly, she was an artist, so she had a lot of her own artwork. She had been buying artwork throughout her life and, you know, having a plan as to what to do with that would have been good. But that wasn’t really her personality. You know, she was going to live forever, so she wasn’t someone that was going to start. [Michael Liersch:] Sure. [Andrea Wortham:] Getting rid of things and giving stuff away. And maybe my sisters and I should have planned for that on some level. And for those of you that are thinking ahead, you’re going to be glad you did that. So I guess, go through the garage, organize the papers, double check that all the documents are right when they’re healthy, when you’re healthy, and you know, that way you leave yourself available for all the emotional upheaval that it’s going to bring no matter what. You can’t plan for that. You want to have this mental space to feel that and feel love and joy and good memories. So don’t leave it for your children to deal with after you die. [Miriam Wolf:] Well, I guess to share a bit, I’m blessed my parents are both still alive, but I don’t even know how I would have that conversation. My mom’s like, “I’m not dying anytime soon.” And I think it just makes me feel like maybe I just shouldn’t bring it up again. But I feel uninformed and nervous that in the future I would be unprepared. [Michael Liersch:] And I will share, I have the same experience when I brought this up with my mom, and this is my profession. To your point, Miriam, she just starts crying and says she doesn’t want to think about dying. A lot of her friends, actually her best friend just recently passed away and was reasonably ill prepared and that was more scary and created inertia, to your point. So Miriam, let’s look to Andrea and Jim. Do you have any suggestions on how you would suggest people drive that conversation? What are your thoughts? Jim? Andrea? [Jim Stephens:] I could talk to that because my mother has passed away. My father is 92 now and still living. So I can tell you what happened with her. So my mom, she was a very lively woman, lit up a room when she went into it and a fighter. But for the last 10 years of her life, she kind of got hit with every ailment you could imagine. She even survived code blue in an ICU. So she was really a fighter. But what happened, now fast-forward, is we spent too many nights in an emergency room, and — [Andrea Wortham:] You want a minute? [Jim Stephens:] No, it’s fine. We were very lucky that one night, luck of the draw, an emergency room doctor we never knew, she was a young female doctor, and she came out of the room and took my dad. She addressed him by his first name and she said, “Can I speak to you down the hall?” And I accompanied them. And she just had such compassion, where she said to my dad, like, “What you’re doing is not helping your wife. She’s here. She’s being prodded and poked. We can’t even find a vein for the IV. She needs to be at home where she’s comfortable and loved.”
And my dad froze up because his whole thing was, I got to keep her alive. Got to keep her alive. Gave her all the medicine. And I looked over at him. I wasn’t as emotional as I was right now. And I just said, “Dad, it’s time for hospice. She’s saying it’s time for hospice.” And I think if that person wasn’t of that emotional level and being that authentic to my dad, he may have froze up. But he said, “I understand.”[Michael Liersch:] Jim, let me ask you a question about that, because, you know, when I hear the emotion in your voice, I didn’t have that challenging conversation with my mother-in-law about my wife’s father. And he was in a similar situation. He was on his third back surgery. It was not good. And we all knew it. And my mother-in-law approached me, and she actually looked for me to drive that conversation. And I admittedly didn’t do it. And so, when you think of this human being that you’re referring to who helped facilitate it, how would you suppose that someone do that more intentionally or try to find that person? [Jim Stephens:] I’ve thought about this and that moment, and then I’m thinking of myself, too. I think sometimes people believe that their spouse should be their health direct, their health proxy, because like, well, they know me, it’s my spouse. But what I saw with my father is he got so beholden to just keep her alive that he lost any subjectivity to what information he was getting. And I would suggest that people really look at, like, their health proxy, be somebody that can be, you know, aware of what my wishes are, thoughtful, disciplined and getting the information, but being able to be black and white about it when it needs to be that, when that decision needs to be made. [Michael Liersch:] I totally hear you. And I understand, you know, I’ve talked to my wife about my own perspectives and how I would want to be cared for in that moment. And I am concerned she would go in your father’s direction. I know I’d want to do the same for her, as well, because she matters so much to me. So I’m totally with you. What was it that this person said to your father that helped him listen? [Jim Stephens:] It was just the fact that this doctor finally just gave her, it was, spoke like a human, you know, was maybe that just this doctor at this moment said, “This is beyond help.” [Michael Liersch:] So it’s really the human approach. So, Miriam, you know, there’s a lot of challenges we hear with these conversations. Is any of what Jim said, does it resonate with you? [Miriam Wolf:] Yeah, I mean, it’s, I think your parent never wants to put the child in an uncomfortable situation. But I just think, along with a number of other uncomfortable topics, if you’re not in the routine of having these open dialogues on a reoccurring basis, it probably wouldn’t be the place to start. I’m thinking maybe I could have a conversation with my sister and then we can, you know, talk to my parents about it together. [Jim Stephens:] Well, Miriam, I have an end of story that you might like. My mother went home, lived for five more weeks, surrounded by, you know, all the great-grandchildren and grandchildren. But as she was getting near the end, there was a hospice nurse, you know, in the home all the time. And she gave us the notice that it was going to be soon.
And what happened was my mother hung in there till my brother called from out of state. And after she talked — or, heard him, she couldn’t speak — she, we took the phone away and within 30 seconds she passed. And the clock on the wall, this old stupid pendulum swinging clock, stopped. And we all looked at it and said, “Oh my god.” My father is now in assisted living. He took that clock at the time it stopped and it’s in his bedroom, and he’s happy and he’s with her still.[Andrea Wortham:] That’s a beautiful story. [Miriam Wolf:] Wow. [Michael Liersch:] That’s, Jim, that’s an intense story. Jim, I really appreciate you sharing this, like you’re highlighting, if you’re able to have these conversations before you pass or someone that you love pass, it can be so important to serving the memory of that person in the most positive and wonderful way.
So I have a question for all of you. So I do want to hit on this idea of having to help drive these conversations and make these decisions for people who have really, you know, troubled dynamics with their parents, their spouse or partner, their children. I think it’s really important to find common ground with that person. And you just focus on the idea that you want to care for their choices or you want them to care for your choices. When it comes to those challenging moments, I feel like you might be able to get past the troubled relationship. Andrea, I’ll start with you. Is there any way to get it through that inertia or is it just finding another person to help you? What are your thoughts?[Andrea Wortham:] So for me, if I were in that situation, I would probably think about writing a letter. You know, if you open up with your own wishes, then that invites someone to open up with theirs, right? So someone needs to be brave enough to reach out. But, you know, say it’s a brother and a sister that don’t get along, but they’re going to need to get along if their parents are still alive and they’re going to be going through this. That’s really the heart of all of these things, is everyone’s emotions are going to be really raw. Maybe it’s just very transactional, and you say, if I pass away, this is what I would like, brother. [Michael Liersch:] I love that idea. So here are my thoughts on how you could help, you know, when I’m making these end-of-life choices, or you could help, you know, on my behalf, make them. And open up, you know, put out that olive branch to say, and I’d love to hear yours too. [Jim Stephens:] For some people, it needs to be more conversational. For, in my situation, I think the way to break through is talk about your own mortality in a more, you know, lighthearted way, like, you know, when I go this is what I hope happens. And then that sometimes with my parents makes them want to join in a little bit, like, because they all have opinions, and they don’t — my mother really had opinions. So if you’re telling her yours, she’s probably going to tell you hers, right? So I’m hoping this podcast reaches some people and helps them just have that conversation, whether in a letter or in a in a way that’s really authentic. Don’t make it be, I’m going to do this now and we’re going to handle this. [Michael Liersch:] Also, how do you almost set it up? I love this idea of it’s almost like a social, you know, herd following, like if you make it like, “Hey, do you want to join this conversation that we’re having in our core family unit about these ideas?” You invite someone to join it. Well, yeah, I’d like to join that one. Am I catching you right, Jim? That’s a pretty clever idea. I hadn’t thought of that before. [Miriam Wolf:] I do think that, either if you have a friend who’s experienced it or you listen to this podcast, and you are like, hmm, that’s a reason to, like, have the conversation. So start somewhere and have the conversation versus feeling like you need to solve for everything in that initial conversation. [Michael Liersch:] What do you think, Jim and Andrea, have you talked about this? [Andrea Wortham:] You know, not to make, not to go into a weird spot, but dying these days is really interesting. You don’t just have the choice of being cremated or buried. You know, there are lots of different rituals now that can keep the memory of your loved ones still alive, like there are forests in California that are like, they’re like cemeteries where you can spread your ashes and the trees will never be cut down. And so you can take a hike and be close to nature and, you know, remember your loved ones. [Michael Liersch:] It’s not weird and morbid at all. I want to react to that. My, one of my friends, his brother just passed away, relatively unexpectedly at an early age, and he used to love to wear scarves. So one of the big things they did is just, at the celebration of life, put scarves everywhere for people to put on and take home. That’s making me feel emotional. And take home with them. So. [Jim Stephens:] I think you’re hitting on the new social media of death. We talk about it with my friends, but just kind of jokingly. Maybe it’s just easier when it’s within your own peer group in your generation as opposed to, you know, going to someone who’s closer to that moment. But maybe it’s all going to change, Michael, because people are more open to sharing what they believe and what they want, you know, than ever before. My parents kind of kept it, you know, private. [Miriam Wolf:] I wonder if there is like a cultural aspect to this too. I mean, my mom is from Barbados, and I feel like in the West Indian culture, maybe this is just my family, but it is, again, more of like, you keep it to the family, it’s private. It wouldn’t be something that’s discussed more broadly. And I’m thinking of my friends too, in their background. [Michael Liersch:] So I know we’ve spoken for a bit of time. Here’s how I’d love to wrap this discussion because for a listener who’s thinking about starting this dialogue for the very first time, like, what would be that inspiration or that first step? [Andrea Wortham:] Sure. I mean, it’s, you just have to, you just have to do it. You need to find the time and the way to have an honest conversation with your parent. So just power through, get past it, bring coffee, bring donuts, a cake. You know, just get honest and real with the people that you need to when you can because it can be too late before you know it. [Michael Liersch:] And I like that idea of wanting to avoid regret. Miriam, what are your thoughts, and then we’ll go to Jim. [Miriam Wolf:] I would say prepare and write down how I would want to approach that conversation and what I want to get out of it. But I feel like if I’m prepared, then I at least know that I will feel better going into this often uncomfortable conversation. [Michael Liersch:] So, preparation. Jim, what are your thoughts? [Jim Stephens:] I would say, having had these conversations, it’s harder to have the financial one. It’s actually a tougher one to throw on the table. It’s much easier to talk about, and people usually go, “Do you want to be cremated or you want to be buried?” Most people have an answer to that. But then I would say, if you start there, go, “But let’s take a couple steps back, Dad. What do you, what makes you happy? How can we make you happy? You know, when maybe you can’t communicate to us about that because we want you to, you know, go out your way.” And, you know, I think maybe that’s the way to make it fun and still learn what the person really wants. [Michael Liersch:] So, approach it with this idea of care and wanting to help and understand. And I think my only comment here from my lens to listeners would be persistence. I feel like my biggest regret is I haven’t been more persistent. I’m afraid of, you know, hurt feelings, negative family dynamics. You know, Jim, you brought this up, it’s just going to take a lot of time. And so I just need to get started right now so I can make tiny, itty-bitty incremental progress over the next however much time I have between tomorrow and 20 years from now with my mom.
So I really appreciate all of your thoughts and you being willing to share with our audience. The three of you are just extraordinary human beings. So thank you for being you, and thank you to all of our listeners for listening.
This information is provided for educational and illustrative purposes only.
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