“It Isn’t Supposed to Happen Like This, Or 5 Important Conversations to Have with Family”

GYST Co-Founder Phil Shigo shares his personal story about this own parents and the importance of having difficult conversations about end-of-life.


I remember vividly the telephone conversation with the Emergency Doctor at the hospital, “I’m sorry about your mother,” he said, “but there’s nothing else we can do.” Days later I learned from the coroner that my mother’s death was the result of an intracranial aneurysm. I remember the pit in my stomach thinking about the ongoing care needed for my father, a 69-year-old paraplegic who was paralyzed after falling-off of a ladder some 14 years earlier. And I remember writing down his comments and questions to me in my notepad days afterward. “It isn’t supposed to happen like this,” he said.

He was right. Speaking with the spinal care doctors at Stanford Medical Center following my father’s debilitating accident in late 2001, my siblings and I had begun slowly accepting the probability that a paraplegic like my father would predecease my mother, a retired grade school teacher who stayed active her entire life and had glowing reports from her physical exams.

We were wrong. The universe had other plans. My siblings and I never anticipated the scenario of my father outliving my mother. We never saw all the behind-the-scenes stuff my mother did to support my father. We never appreciated how difficult it would be to find the manila folder in their house that contained the important financial information or how challenging it would be to access their estate planning information. We never realized they lacked adequate insurance.

“39% of U.S. Adults provide care for a parent, sibling or relative and 70% are working professionals between in the age of 30-55 with children of our own.”

 Pew Research Center

I am grateful for having a mother as long as I did. I am humbled by all I now know that she did for my father. And I am convinced that by having conversations about important things we can all expect better outcomes for our families even if we can’t control the actual plan for our lives.

1. Start a Conversation

Ellen Goodman is Co-Founder and Director of a non-for-profit called The Conversation Project, has an entire site devoted to helping you with techniques to get your thoughts together for what you, a friend or a family member want for end-of-life care. Take 5 minutes away from looking at status updates and photos on Facebook or Instagram, and download her free Starter Kit, I believe it’s something you’ll like and want to share.


Conversation with Occupational Therapist, March 2014

2. Create your Living Will

My folks are old school. They had their Advanced Directives created by an estate planning attorney who released copies to me as their executor after my mother’s death. However, there are many other online options available to help you create an Advanced Directive (Living Will). Willing.com is offers users a free service that is legally valid in 50 states and takes minutes to create.   Other services like LegalZoom offer fixed pricing options for a few hundred dollars. Whether you choose an online service or want the help of a qualified professional, this document is explains your wishes should you not be able to speak for yourself.


3. Develop a Financial Plan

Everyone’s situation varies when it comes to finances. Services like Learnvest (a wholly owned subsidiary of Northwestern Mutual Life) offer a great resource to help you identify what insurance and estate planning information and provides you with a financial plan, check it out.


4. Insure Yourself and Others

Living with my father in the days after my mother passed, I assumed the responsibility for many of the things my mother used to do.   Paying bills and walking down the road to collect the mail were some of those things. There stuck in a pile of utility bills, donation requests from charities and a couple mail-order catalogs was a direct mail addressed to my mother from MetLife, I smiled. Then I sighed and looked up into the clouds, “you never got it did you!?!?”

“Seven of 10 working-age women, or an estimated 64 million women, have no health insurance coverage or inadequate coverage, medical bill or debt problems, or problems accessing needed health care because of cost.”

– The CommonWealth Fund

 My mother did many amazing things. She was a woman, who in addition to her caregiving responsibilities for my father, attended church regularly and gave what little money and time she had to help others she said, “Were less fortunate.” She never did think to get life insurance. Take an hour to compare prices and policies to see what makes sense for your family.


5. Organize Digital Details

 Mid-Twentieth Century Engineers at Zephyr American were responsible for some pretty important office innovations, but “export” and “share” features were never a part of Rolodex product roadmap. My mother stored more than most on notched cards and rotating spindles. My siblings and I use Google Drive to store and share my father’s Activities of Daily Living, Contacts, Prescription Information, Power of Attorney, Health Directives, etc. Go digital and start organizing your digital details.


Everyone’s situation with his or her aging parents is different and challenging in its own way, but these are the things I wish I’d thought about in advance.



4 thoughts on ““It Isn’t Supposed to Happen Like This, Or 5 Important Conversations to Have with Family”

  1. I would add write your own obituary so it has all important info like the names of family members , survivors and pre deceased., also What church you attended, who you want acknowledged, your middle name, your parents names, military dates, etc.
    Currently I and one friend (in our 50’s) are hastily putting together an obituary and write up for our 94 yr. old friend who passed. The daughter is on The other coast, the son not much help. I knew him for 10 yrs, her for 5. We know so little of his life and it was a full one. We are doing this by text because we are in different cities. So his obit will not do him justice sad to say. Did he have a middle name?? What was his rank in the army? Since obits are time sensitive this would be most helpful to those doing the planning and remembering.


  2. I really enjoy getting my emails from you. You are so helpful. I tried to get my will, insurance policies, deeds, titles, etc. organized and ready for my daughters in case something happens. I have a will administrator paper and on computer to direct them to where everything is located. Thanks for the lifeline help.


  3. I’m sorry for your loss. How generous of you to want to share with others the challanges you faced and offer suggestions to make a difficult time a tad easier. God Bless you.


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