What Can You Control?

on control

Then a young pastor, I recall leaving one of my first graveside services. (Though it felt more like escaping.) Outwardly, I may have appeared calm and serious. Inwardly, I berated myself for forgetting parts of the Lord’s Prayer.

Yeah, I said forgetting!

I didn’t know the son and daughter of the dearly departed. They’d called my church, searching for a minister in their “hour of need.” Now, with the simple service finished, the two siblings walked behind me. Without glancing back, I easily overheard their not-whispered conversation. I fretted they might be exchanging snide criticisms about the stupid pastor who messed up Christianity’s most famous prayer.

Not at all!

They were arguing about their mother’s will and her possessions.

I had fumbled the Lord’s Prayer’s final sentences. How embarrassing! At the open grave of a stranger, with a handful of her family that I’d only met in one meeting prior to the service, I’d shut my Book of Worship and invited the mourners to pray with me. It was just the Lord’s Prayer. They were words I’d memorized as a kid in Sunday school way back when. But I was nervous. Faking a few final muttered words, I hurried to the “Amen.”

Had the family even noticed? They probably didn’t know any formal prayers, including the “one Jesus taught his disciples to say.” Like most pastors, I occasionally received out-of-the-blue calls asking for help with a funeral or wedding. I met twice with this family: once to plan the service (“Mother just wanted a few words and a prayer, pastor.”) and once at the grave.

I learned two things in that sorry graveyard.

First, since that dismal day, I added the Lord’s Prayer—in LARGE font—to any notes I’ve written and bookmarked the Book of Worship’s page where the prayer is located. Be prepared!

And second, some families fight over possessions rather than supporting each other in their grief.

  • Money divides us.
  • Possessions own us.
  • Wills serve as battlegrounds.
  • The absence of a will creates a warzone.
  • Every sibling claims a different version of what Mom or Dad “promised me.”
  • The family member designated as the executor is selling the parents’ house too fast (or too slow) and for the wrong price and . . .
  • Or there is no appointed executor, only squabbling siblings threatening lawsuits.

+      +      +

In my current work with bereavement for a hospice, I contact people during the year following a death. One of the early, typical comments from grievers is about “the business of the estate.” The endless to-do lists are overwhelming. Some admit to being glad for the demands and deadlines. After all, canceling credit cards, talking with insurance agents, or closing bank accounts is easier to manage than shedding tears. Well, with a pandemic and sheltering-in-place, even “easy” has become hard.

Still, if busy, won’t they avoid the emotional cost of grieving? [By the way, 96.7%* of the time, the answer is: No!]

But for a few, and maybe more than a few, the estate “business” doesn’t involve grief avoidance or the dreary, teary list of unavoidable tasks. Like the brother and sister that argued as we left their mother’s grave, there will be disagreements. The reasons for a family’s divisions usually exist long before anyone’s death. Festering arguments and blame games don’t take a break when the grave is dug or the ashes fill an urn. Possessions possess us. Money isn’t about saving for the future, but making sure others lose in the present.

I have no solutions to these sad situations.

With other challenging situations, it’s not difficult to craft a clever list of 9 things not to say with grievers or 8 helpful things to say to grieving people. But will a tidy list of ideas really matter to an individual or family that argues about possessions?

Nonetheless . . .

  • I hope every family talks openly about preferences for care and comfort long before a loved one has a life-threatening illness. Ask about and complete the POLST and DNR forms. Create the living will for health care issues and inform everyone directly impacted by the eventual death of a loved one about those forms’ contents.
  • Craft a will that easily explains the needs of the estate. Let everyone mentioned in the will know about it and read it. Let loved ones ask questions. Answer the questions. Wills should be an open book, not a hidden mystery.

However, people procrastinate. They keep secrets. Money, real or imagined, is used to manipulate future choices or to fuel guilt born from past decisions. And there are families so profoundly dysfunctional that nothing prevents attacking and counter-attacking each other.

What can do you if blindsided by another family member’s unexpected—or expected—greed or when they try to make you feel guilty?

I have one feeble thought, based on what I’ve learned from the dying. Many with a life-limiting illness fear losing control. In the research done with Oregon’s two-decades-old Death with Dignity choice, in the 2018 data summary, the primary reason patients considered using prescribed drugs to end their life involved “loss of autonomy” (91.7% of respondents). Yes, many don’t want to be a burden and others dread physical pain, but not being in charge of their life mattered most.

Maybe that’s a roundabout lesson for those confronted by family members focused on the money or possessions after the death. What can you control? [Which is also a relevant question during a pandemic and shelter-in-place.] As hard as it may be, isn’t it better to let go and not battle another family member over things?

It’s almost impossible to control another person’s irrational, hurtful, greedy actions, but you can decide to not participate in their selfish schemes.

Am I being naïve in hoping other family members won’t join in a battle over possessions?


But in that kind of “war,” everyone loses. Control what is best for you: give yourself time to grieve and make time to be with people who will lovingly support you.


*Okay, fine, the 96.7% is my made-up figure. But I bet’s it pretty darn accurate.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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