Thinking Aloud Blog

The Examined Life

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” A powerful statement. Now during this period of the Coronavirus, many of us have more time to examine our lives, as well as examine our relationships with others.

During my many years as an elder law and estate planning attorney, I regularly dealt with death and dying issues, talking to clients about the inevitable. I wasn’t apprehensive doing so, having suffered the loss of my mother as a young child, my father dying in my home, and working as a Hospice volunteer.

Planning with clients was not just about money and documents, not just about deciding “who gets what” when we die.  Money and property are only part of what we bequeath to others. For me to do meaningful planning, I had to discern a client’s desires and goals, understand their personal values, family history, and fears and concerns. As part of the process, we discussed what type of personal legacy they wanted to leave should they become disabled, and eventually upon death.  Not easy discussions. But necessary.

In this critical “shelter-in-place” thunderbolt, we have an opportunity, possibly a blessing, to take the time to learn from Socrates and examine our life, finding the positive worth in it. Some inquiry, like meditation, will be done personally, some shared with family members and friends, bringing us closer to the “who” we are, and how we want to be remembered upon death. These are the discussions I’ve been privileged to share with many clients. By accessing our deeper selves, we can do life and death planning with the awareness not only of our needs and desires, but that of our loved ones, our beneficiaries.

I’m no longer practicing my profession, but I’ve sadly seen too many people lose control over their lives because they suddenly became incapacitated and didn’t have Healthcare and Financial Powers of Attorney. Unable to communicate, they lost their say as to how and where they would choose to live, who makes personal decisions for them and who handles their assets and money, requiring a court to make those decisions. For one client who died without a Will, her estate was divided pursuant to state law amongst sixty-nine distant relatives – not to the dedicated cousin who had cared for her.

Documents are of course essential, but our true wealth is the essence of who we are as unique human beings –the roads and turns we have traveled through life, and the values, vision, wisdom we have to offer to others.  Our legacy includes the priceless memories we have accumulated from the experiences of our learning, the ups and downs, losses, pain and joy. Some of this can be imbued in our planning documents.

I share some questions to explore which may help when you meet with an attorney to do, or update, your life and estate planning.

1.  What were the most important values and lessons you learned thus far in your life, personally and from your family? Good and bad? How do they affect your relationship to family, friends, and co-workers?

2.  Did you have a family philosophy? Do you want a family philosophy? If so, I recommend the book by Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families.

3.  Do you measure yourself by the money you earn, or the work you do?

4.  What are the values and lessons you would like to pass on to children, loved ones, family or friends, now or in the future?

5.  How do you want to be cared for if disabled? If you are dying? Have you thought about your end-of-life choices? These questions are applicable to an Advanced Healthcare Directive, which every State offers, in which you name your agents, the people you choose to make decisions for you if disabled, and later upon your death. You can also expand on your wishes in a personal separate guidance to give to your agents, as well as your family, explaining your choices, to give them a deeper understanding of your feelings; but of course, face to face sharing is the most important.

6.  What most animates you? What most restores your energy?

7.  How do you want to be thought of now? How do you want to be remembered by your family, friends and community?

8.  What do you think your loved ones would say about you if your memorial service were today? What would you hope they would say?

I know this introspection is not easy, but it can build full and richer connections, give voice to one’s life, and celebrate what it means to be living an examined life.

Please don’t hesitate to comment or share your thoughts.

2020 © Roberta Kuriloff