Minimizing the emotional toll with sound end-of-life planning
Whether you’re healthy or diagnosed with a serious illness, planning for the end is one of the most thoughtful things you can do for your family
When Sally Potvin’s husband was sick and in home hospice, the family couldn’t get him to talk about what kind of funeral service he wanted.
About 15 years earlier, the Potvins had their trusts and wills done, but the stuff about funeral services and how they wanted to be buried weren’t very detailed. Plus, with so many years since preparing those documents, did he still feel the same way?
Potvin volunteers her experience in accounting — she’s a former CPA — as part of the Pathfinders team that provides end-of-life planning — estate plans, trusts, wills, financial planning and other legalities — for those in the community who need it. Pathfinders Executive Director Allison Daily said it’s common for people with a serious or terminal illness to avoid discussions about end-of-life planning because they often feel like it signifies that they’re “giving up.”
When former Aspen Times publisher Gunilla Israel Asher, who passed away in 2014, had a terminal cancer diagnosis, she worked with Daily on her end-of-life plans. Daily said Asher knew it would be hard for her family to talk about these plans.
“She knew that if this (death) happens, regardless of when it happens, she wanted her plans in place,” Daily said. “We want this end-of-life plan to be the way you want it.”
With good planning, there’s more time to live
Making end-of-life plans are a good idea regardless of your health status, said Danielle Howard, a certified financial planner in Basalt who is part of the Pathfinders team.
“When you’re doing this planning while in perfectly good health doesn’t mean you have the attitude you’re giving up on life, so what changes when you’re diagnosed with a terminal illness? It’s just good planning,” Howard said. “It is for the benefit of your family — it is by no means ‘giving up.’”
Howard has worked with families whose deceased relatives didn’t do the proper planning, and it can really take a toll on those who are left trying to figure it all out.
“You’re not able to mourn and celebrate their life because you’re so consumed with trying to put all of these missing pieces together,” Howard said.
For those with terminal illness who make these end-of-life plans, it’s almost a freeing experienced. Once the planning is complete, these people can get on with living their lives and enjoy the time they have left.
“This idea of being as proactive as possible really helps people to feel empowered around their choices during life and upon passing,” Howard said.
The good and the volatile
Mary Ryerson, executive vice president at Alpine Bank in Aspen, said it’s important for professionals working with grieving families to show compassion, especially when they are facing so many unknowns.
“These are such hard waters to navigate,” she said. “As a banker, I try to make it as easy on a surviving spouse or partner as possible.”
When people don’t have their end-of-life plans in place, things can turn volatile. Ryerson said second marriages with children can get especially complicated.
Howard has seen some difficult things happen, but she’s also seen people turn their end-of-life planning into positive, beautiful experiences. People with children, for example, who have the tough conversations out in the open — about who’s getting what and why — tend to set up a smoother transition for their kids.
Howard encourages her client’s to create a legacy letter. This is where you pass on family history, values, spiritual beliefs, hopes and dreams for your family. She feels this is as valuable, if not more so, than passing on financial assets.
“If you love your kids equally, your going to treat each one uniquely.” Howard said. “One of my big pushes for families doing this planning is to bring money out of the closet. … The sooner you plan — the sooner you start having the conversations, become willing to be vulnerable and share your hopes, dreams, concerns and fears around this idea that we’re all going to leave this world — the better.”
These are just the beginning of lots of questions and answers you should consider to make the process more streamlined and simpler for those that would be given the task of handling your estate. If you love your family, it makes sense to get all matters handled while everyone is healthy and making clear choices of how they want things resolved.
*This is the final part in a three-part series about end-of-life planning. The first part focused on the importance of wills and other legal documents, and the second part focused on financial planning.
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