Honoring End-of-Life Wishes in Blended Families
Tips you can use to avoid conflict now — and later
Over the course of 10 months, Lisa watched the man to whom she had been married for nearly two decades waste away from kidney disease. She was thankful, though, that some things had gone better than she feared. Gerry’s grown daughters from his first marriage had been respectful of his wishes not to continue with dialysis after the doctors said the treatment was no longer helpful. Lisa had expected them to make a fuss about that.
Then, two days after Gerry died, the daughters astonished Lisa with what she felt was an inconsiderate and inappropriate demand. While going over the plans for the funeral, they insisted that their mother give a eulogy, even though her relationship with her divorced husband had remained acrimonious through the years. They argued that their mom, who'd been Gerry’s high school sweetheart, knew a side of their dad that Lisa did not. Her words would be more meaningful to his friends and relatives than anything Lisa or even Lisa and Gerry’s children had to say, they insisted.
When 'Blended' Really Means 'Divided'
End-of-life issues, whether it’s writing a will or planning the script for a funeral, are never easy. In a blended family, these processes tend to be even more fraught.
(MORE: Casey Kasem’s Legacy for Caregivers)
The recent news of legal battles between the late Robin Williams's wife, Susan Schneider, and his children from his previous marriages have made public issues that often remain behind the curtain. His children claim his third wife is expressly acting against the provisions laid out in his estate. Schneider's lawyer has implied the three Williams children are being unreasonable.
“The end of life is often a nexus where stuff that has been building for decades comes out,” says Brian Carpenter, associate professor of psychology at Washington University who studies family communication and decision making. “As we live longer and longer, relationships are becoming more complicated. Families may be ‘blended’ more than once. That kind of situation compounds the number of people that are part of the end-of-life conversation,” Carpenter adds.
In other words, the longer we live, the more likely we are to have more than one marriage and thus stepchildren plus a host of other relatives whose thoughts and feelings we likely want to take into account when we plan anything related to dying, death and the aftermath.
So, getting our end-of-life wishes met — is it complicated for blended families? Very. Is it doable? In most cases, yes, Carpenter believes.
(MORE: End-of-Life Planning: Starting the Conversation)
“It’s never too late to talk about expectations and preferences — though it’s much better to do so before people grow elderly or ill,” Carpenter warns. We all need to focus on what we (and those we love) want and what we don’t want. In blended families, more than the usual number of conversations may be needed.
Carpenter suggests these five steps to begin the delicate procedure:
Five Steps For Productive Conversations
1. Be realistic about your family. A stepmother or stepbrother who tends to be argumentative or irritable in general won’t be any less difficult when you discuss end-of-life issues. Plan beforehand how you might deal with such a person. If others in the family share your assessment, make a pact not to walk out of the meeting no matter how irked you become. Or agree that you will ask the person or people interfering with the process to put any objections in writing. Promise to go through them carefully (and do so), and schedule another family conversation as soon as you can.
(Carpenter has observed that families that have been “blended” a long time often find it easier to overcome differences of opinion, especially if the adult children and their stepfamilies have amicable relations. That’s not something you can go back and fix. So keep in mind that the tone you set now can affect the quality of life and death down the line.)
2. Gather important documents. All family members, even people who are perfectly healthy, should have a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care and for finances. In fact, Carpenter stresses that anyone over the age of 18 needs these documents. If unmarried young adults should (heaven forbid) be in a terrible accident, their parents, who may not know their wishes as well as their peers, will be the ones making the decisions about treatment and care.
On the happier side, young adults often have a relaxed attitude toward filling out living wills or health care proxies. Their “let’s get this done” outlook may positively affect the entire blended family, and everyone can fill out paperwork and write down thoughts and requests at one family meeting.
For information about living wills and health care proxies, you can consult a family lawyer or a member of your clergy or do a search online for “Where do I find forms for a living will” and write your state in the search bar next to these words. Look for an official site (along with law practices seeking business). This, for instance, is from the bar association for the state of Oklahoma.
(MORE: How to Make Your End-of-Life Wishes Known)
3. Be explicit about your desires. Do you want your body to be cremated after you die? Make sure your blended-family members know. Also be certain that you clarify in print what you want done with your ashes: Lana’s estranged stepfather claimed her mother “always wanted to go to Rome,” and took his current girlfriend along for the trip to scatter Lana’s mother’s remains — using money from the mother’s estate, no less.
Among items Carpenter advises people to consider in end-of-life planning (beyond the living will) are whether the funeral should be religious, or even “be” at all. Many people are more comfortable with the idea of a “memorial” or a simple gathering than an interment in a cemetery. Listing people you might want to speak at a memorial will quash any coup by disagreeing (and disagreeable) steprelatives.
4. Revisit the conversation. You can’t expect your 50-year-old self to know what your 80-year-old-self will be comfortable with. Preferences change, says Carpenter. “In our research, we have become less focused on knowing what each person wants and more focused on the blended family being able to talk,” he adds.
Daniel, a 55-year-old lawyer from New Jersey, recounts his story. “My mom had always thought religion was stupid, and although both my parents were Jewish and my stepdad was Jewish as well, we observed no Jewish practices in our household. Then a few days before my mother died after a long battle with breast cancer, when we were going over details for the memorial she was helping us plan, she asked me, as the oldest son, to say Kaddish [the Jewish prayer for the dead] at the service. We were all surprised, but no one, not my stepfather or ‘half-sister,’ objected. I was glad we had the good sense to talk things over with her because here was something she had decided was important, and we had no idea.”
5. Look beyond the death. Carpenter stresses that end-of-life issues don’t end with the funeral. “Something important to consider beforehand is what kind of relationships you want to have with your blended family members after the person who was the glue that stuck you together dies,” he says.
For instance, do you still want to have a relationship with your stepfather, especially if your mother married him later in her life and you hardly knew him? When the blending has happened when family members are all older, people often don’t want to continue relationships, Carpenter observes. It’s perfectly normal, and don’t judge yourself if contact eventually diminishes to a yearly holiday card.
All this tugs at the question, “How can I get my blended family to sit down and talk about all this?” Carpenter suggests that you jump on any opportunity, such as the illness of a neighbor, the death of a family friend or an event in the news.
“My dad loved Lauren Bacall, and when she died and all the details about her funeral were in the news, I said to him, ‘Have you noticed that this must have been so well planned ages ago? Let’s work out something classy for when you die,’” says Nina, a 58-year-old insurance broker from the Chicago suburbs. “That worked. My stepmom, my sibs and I feel so relieved to know his wishes.”
Ideally, health care professionals should be educating families, both blended and not, about the need for conversations. Still, often one proactive family member needs to step up, and that person may just be you.
Be sure to check out the Conversation Project online, which features a downloadable “starter kit” in England, Spanish, French and Mandarin.
Carpenter’s lab at Washington University is currently running a study about end-of-life care. If you’re interested in participating, call 314-935-6173.