Even if I know the people who have come to my office to discuss an estate plan, I always start the meat of the discussion with a question like, "Tell me about your family?" When my clients are a couple, I always take note of who starts and which family members are identified first. Clients often begin with the children. Either, "We have x number of children," or "We don't have children."
I like to draw the family in a genogram. My clients watch me carefully as I add my symbols to the picture of their family as the story evolves. Squares for boys, circles for girls, // for divorced, ---- for not married, and an X for death. That's often the hardest symbol on the page. Not surprisingly, I have more older female clients than male clients. And while women tend to live longer than men, I don't think their shorter life span means that they have any less importance than the women in the family genogram.
On this father's day, I'm reminded of my own father, and how much influence he had on my life while he was on this earth, and for the twenty-three years since the day he passed away at the kitchen table, sitting in his favorite chair and reading the paper. I still believe he had been reading the obituaries. He, like some of my older clients, joke about reading their names in the obituary. On the May morning he died, I would not be surprised if my Dad didn't have an inner knowing that his name would soon be in print.
In my consultations with clients, as I draw the square for men who are also fathers, I've come to expect a story. The meaning of the story is often that fathers had an important influence on the lives of the other family members--even if the father "wasn't around much." Like my clients, I'm sad that I didn't have more time to talk to my father, argue and disagree, and ask for advice. I believe it would be comforting to have words on a page that my father wrote for me that I could read again and again when I longed for a connection that has been forever broken.
This is one of the reasons that I strongly recommend that my clients write an "Ethical Will" or some other type of letter to their loved ones. I try to make it easy for them by putting all of their "important legal documents" in one hard-cover notebook that has plenty of room for growth. And while I assist clients in putting other documents in their notebooks such as car titles, beneficiary designations, pre-paid funeral contracts, and identification of financial accounts, I encourage clients give their meaningful possessions and words to those who come into possession of the notebook after they have died.
So on this father's day, think about what you would like for your family to know once you can no longer tell them in person. Write it down. Spell out the influence someone has had on your life, and thank them. Describe the influence you hope you have had on their lives. Getting in touch with the profound gratification you will likely feel for the opportunity you had to be a parent, or a child, will not only help others with their grief after you have died, it will also make you feel good while you're still on this earth.