When the Bravest Thing You Can Do Is Nothing: What I Tell Clients to Say to a Dying Loved One
When someone calls my office about a dying loved one, I hear it in his or her voice. They usually feel very alone with it. That’s how Cynthia sounded when I answered the phone that day. Her father Patrick was a few hours’ drive away, and according to her sister Eileen, who lives nearby, he was steadily declining from a terminal illness and likely to pass away at any time.
Her father’s death wasn’t necessarily sudden, but no one had considered making an estate plan. Or, maybe they’d considered it, but never gotten around to it. Her father owned a modest home and a car. He had a few investments. The house was largely unchanged since Cynthia’s mother died a few years before, full of their family memories and belongings. Now, Cynthia noticed that her siblings were taking items from the home. Eileen, who had been there as caretaker, felt this was her due. Her brother Ted mentioned wanting to use the car for his daughter, who was almost sixteen.
Cynthia loved her siblings and had always gotten along with them, but she could see that her father’s death was about to impact their family in a way she never predicted. She drove down to see her father, and she told him her concerns. Her father was not well, but he was coherent, and he listened to her. He became stressed and agitated at the thought that his children might argue over what he considered a meager estate. He expressed concern that he would like to help pay for his grandchildren’s educations with the money from the sale of his home. It wasn’t that he’d never thought about it; it was that no one had ever told him it was possible to make a will that would help ensure these wishes became reality.
This was the point when Cynthia reached out to me. In a race against the clock, could I make documents for Patrick, so that he wouldn’t be concerned about the fate of his family? Was there time, and what could we accomplish before Patrick lost his capacity to sign his documents?
I began to step into action, taking notes and making a plan. But then I paused. On the phone was a woman dealing with the death of the person she loved. The person who taught her to ride a bike. Who held her on his lap when she was a little girl. Who walked her down the aisle when she got married. I told Cynthia, “If this is truly your father’s wishes, I can help you to proceed in making a plan. But I want you to know that this time you have left with him is precious. If you would rather be with him, spend time with him, and hold his hand as he moves on, that is more important.”
I have been thinking about this lately, as many families across the nation are facing unexpected deaths of their loved ones, many of whom do not have an estate plan. In some cases, these people will feel incredible guilt for not “providing” for their families with a plan, something they meant to do and never got around to or didn’t know enough about.
Maybe a last-minute plan would allow the person to die with a greater sense of peace. But it might actually be a source of stress. Many people make the choice to never create an estate plan, and that is also a choice.
When there was a death in my own family—a complicated, messy situation—I thought of every possible scenario and whether there was anything, in terms of legal documents, I could do for my dying loved one. Instead, I made the choice to live in the moment, hold his hand, and be there, present and full of love. It was not an easy choice. I was torn between taking action and a sense of control or just sitting with something incredibly difficult. In the end, I just sat. But I would not trade those hours together for anything.
The least amount of action turned out to be the bravest, most loving thing I could do.
In the end, Cynthia decided not to push to make a plan for her dad. Instead, as she watched him slip into a coma, she held his hand and told him,
“You’ve been a great father and grandfather. You have our permission to die in peace. We see that you’re hurting, and we love you. We will support each other. We will be okay without you, and your grandkids will be okay without you. You’ve run a good race, fought a good fight, and your work is done. You can rest. You can let go.”
Her father passed away peacefully, and Cynthia, Eileen, and Ted faced the task of what was left with resolve. It was not always easy to guess at their parents’ idea of what was fair for the different families. But like other siblings, they managed. Cynthia has not spoken to Ted since they sold her father’s house.
Fortunately, Cynthia was motivated by all this to create her own plan, and we worked together to make the most comprehensive plan possible. We talked about how her sister, though she has many years of experience in the healthcare system, lived too far away to be the best choice for healthcare agent. Cynthia was able to provide a trust for her niece that won’t be controlled by her brother. All of this was comforting to her, too, and another way to seek closure after her father’s death.
As an estate planning attorney, I am completely prepared to build you an estate plan at the last minute for your loved one, if that’s the right choice. I have powerful tools to help your loved one make their decisions and make them well. That’s my job, and I’m proud to help many families accomplish this.
But if that’s not the right decision for your loved one or your family—if, in the final days and hours of a loved one’s life, you need to just be together, grieve and mourn—you have not failed. You have chosen to prioritize what makes sense for you in the moment. And I think it is commendable and brave to take this tiny action: to sit quietly and offer comfort to your loved one.
**This incident is a fictionalized account that brings together many elements of calls we’ve received and clients we’ve worked with. It is not meant to represent any particular family, and any resemblance is coincidental.**