President's Message #7, Summer 1999
by Dr. Marjorie Engel
He was sitting with his head resting in his cupped hands, chair pushed against the wall near the front of the room. A tall blonde was in the chair next to him, leaning forward with one hand resting gently on his knee. I heard a whispered voice behind me say, "Do you think that's his father?"
We were at a wake. The wake for a young man, a dear friend of my daughter's, who had died suddenly. The day felt topsy-turvy — backwards. Parents are not supposed to bury their children; it's supposed to end the other way around. But, here we all were offering our respect to the dead and our sympathy to the parents. Or, were we?
His mom was accepting hugs from a line of friends while her husband stood close beside her. It turned out that the man in the chair near the casket was the young man's dad — and he was doing his grieving alone. He did not reach out to others and few in the room, other than his companion, took notice of him. I wondered if this would become the accepted funeral ritual for divorced and remarried couples — moms and children still connected and dads having a difficult time maintaining those relationships. That possibility is enough to break your heart.
In the early '90s, while I was on tour with my first book, The Divorce Decisions Workbook, the owner of a funeral home asked me how they should "handle" divorced and remarried relatives of the deceased. "On a case by case basis" is not much help when professionals, friends, and families are looking for some kind of framework in this most emotional ritual.
The number of divorced parents and stepfamilies has reached a critical mass. As a result, "What to offer as guidance to grieving families?" is not an idle question. Americans aren't noted for planning ahead so maybe stepfamilies haven't talked about death and the subsequent decisions that will have to be made. On the other hand, maybe members of the Stepfamily Association of America have had personal experience with death in a "complicated family" and have ideas or suggestions to offer. If you do, please send them to me.
At the very least, it will help for us to think about our own personal preferences and establish our own guiding principles regarding death. Parents and adult children might consider preparing health care directives. A health care proxy, also called an advance medical directive, deals with the kinds of life-sustaining measures that are acceptable to you. This legal document can relieve your spouse and other relatives of a terrible burden and give you the peace of mind of knowing that you will be able to die with dignity.
Each state has it's own regulations concerning these directives. For a free copy of the official form for your state, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to The Society for the Right to Die, Dept. NL, Suite 831, 250 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10107.
If you already have a health care proxy, there are two issues to consider. First, is the health care proxy written for the state in which you currently reside? Second, who is the person designated to act as your proxy? Not all states automatically remove legal powers, previously designated to a spouse, upon completion of a divorce. If you do not want a former spouse to continue with health care proxy authority, make sure that authority previously given is properly revoked.
Does your family know how you feel about organ donation? Cremation? Burial plots? If they don't, who will have the legal authority (or responsibility) to make those difficult decisions? One thing is crystal clear. Because we are members of a stepfamily, the issues surrounding death have become more complex.
In memoriam. "Tom, by your death we are challenged to establish a completely new and different kind of connection with you. May you rest in peace."
Dr. Marjorie Engel is president of the Stepfamily Association of America