Talking about Death and Dying – this is not the movies

Imagine the scene …

There are as many movies about funerals and the aftermath thereof as there are genres of movies! There is a favourite cinematography device that can be applied, again, to most genres. The church and graveyard scenes fade. The next day the family arrives (separately) at very official-looking offices. Nobody makes eye contact. There are a lot of awkward silences. The executor of the estate walks in. The camera pans slowly over the faces of the prospective heirs. This is the moment of truth: the Reading Of The Will …   

From Hollywood to Bollywood to Nollywood – this is the moment where the Dearly Departed finally gets to tell the relatives exactly what they think of them.  Revenge, surprise, validation, fear, anger, revolt – big emotions are, after all, the stuff movies are made of!

In real life, the reason why the outcome of the scenario sketched above could come as a surprise (to put it mildly) is the fact that the ‘old geezer’ might have simply been too scared to talk to their heirs. Maybe they did not know how to start. Maybe they were scared of the responses they would get. Maybe they were embarrassed …  

If this was your movie, how do you think this scene will play out?

Like in the movies, all families have secrets, politics and divergent hopes and dreams and fundamental beliefs about How Things Should Be Done. And yes. Some families put even Hollywood to shame. Even if you trust your beloveds to behave, surely you would want to make the process as easy and as life-affirming as possible?

Nobody will know what to expect and sometimes that is a good thing. However, you may have the power to avoid (or at least strongly influence) an epic family feud that could ripple misery over decades, by simply preparing people. Perhaps your wayward offspring only surf all day, because they think they are going to inherit the Golden Goose. Instead, you have decided to leave it to your loyal employee who has been with the company from day one. A quiet word to your employee and the number of your financial advisor and your attorney may, therefore, be a good thing.

Maybe your partner needs to be reassured that you have made provision for them and so they can focus on coping with their emotion and supporting the rest of your family through their grief processes.   

Why are you hesitating?

It often helps to consider WHY we are hesitant to communicate about certain issues. Talking about your mortality and what you want to have happen after you are dead will never be an easy conversation. There is a finality about it and no-one has come back from the Beyond to tell us what lies ahead.

Faith – your rock and anchor?

It is interesting how what you consciously or subconsciously internalised over the years come into sharp relief when you have to deal with the prospect of your mortality. You may have rejected the faith of your childhood, disavowed all religious beliefs or changed religions. In the quiet of the night, that which you were taught throughout your life will come back to you and demand an audience. Don’t be surprised if Logic decides to step outside for a smoke break.

You may be furious at your God. You may feel worse because you think that doubt is a sign of a lack of faith. You may feel that you cannot share these thoughts and feelings with others who have a particular view of you and what you believe in. It may be useful to talk to a spiritual counsellor about this who is not attached to anyone or any group that you know.

Aunty Sophie and the holy water

And then there is Aunty Sophie who lights candles to talk to Those who have Crossed Over. She refuses to entertain any discussion about death and breaks out the salt, garlic, Hymnbook and holy water if she gets whiff of any such talk. You KNOW that as loudly as she will pray for you, she will also gossip about you afterwards. Her superstition won’t stop her from sharing your business with everyone on your family WhatsApp group and then some!  

Silence is not really golden

Maybe you grew up in a household where nothing of substance was ever discussed. Maybe you feel that if you start talking about this one thing, you would have to talk about a whole lot of other things… Perhaps even admit a few things that will raise more than a few eyebrows.

If this rings true, discuss these with a professional. Sometimes one has to make peace with the fact that you cannot resolve all your own issues and those of your family in your lifetime. If you are not going to share information with the family that may have an impact on their inheritance or life after you are no longer around, do tell your attorney or financial advisor at the very least.     

So maybe it is not the Will that you are worried about

Maybe it has to do with how your near and dear ones will cope, once you are gone. These are some of the concerns clients have voiced:

  • How will they deal with their grief?
  • Will they even know what to do, once I die?
  • What if a fight breaks out in the family because they are unhappy about my Will?
  • Have I left enough money for them – and what if I did not?

Fortunately, there are things you can do to help them NOW to prepare for the time when you are no longer around.

  1. Prepare supporters – You know your family. You know who will be most affected in which way by your passing. Think about who you could ask to support them individually and practically.
  1. Create a dot-to-dot book – Help your family by preparing a step-by-step ‘how-to’ guide. Under these circumstances, it may be challenging to think clearly. It may be easy to make mistakes.   Make sure that you list all your important documents and where they can be found. Make sure that you have a signed will that is (fairly) easy to find. It is essential to provide your Financial with a signed copy of your Will, just in case the original goes missing. Say that you have done so in your guide!
  1. Difficult family conversations – You cannot keep family members from squabbling and being mean to one another. However, you can try to make your wishes clear – the use of a video recording may be useful. You can also help your beloveds learn the skills to deal with conflict, through professional help, giving them articles to read about their rights and also by setting up legal professionals to contact in future.   
  1. Speak to your financial advisor – You might be right. Maybe you did not save enough money. Now what? Talk to your Financial Advisor. Together you can explore various scenarios and potential solutions. There may be ways your heirs can invest that would give them what they would need in the future. Consider making financial arrangements with your Advisor for a few sessions with your family members now already.

The above proves again why we advocate that you invest in the services of a Financial Advisor that has built their practice on giving ADVICE rather than only selling PRODUCTS.

 A game plan for the Dreaded Conversations

So you’ve made up your mind to Say Something. Well done. How are you going to go about it? Consider the following:

  • Who – it may be useful to think about who needs to know about your Will and for what purpose. You may want to give some thought around the order in which you want to talk to them. They may need or want to talk to others in the clan about it and may inadvertently spill the beans before you are ready. Is it wisest to speak to people in person, in a group or with an attorney present and an ambulance on standby?
  • What – Sometimes we think we need to say more than is necessary. Before you start ask yourself WHY you want to talk to this person and what you wish to achieve. Is it only a matter of transmitting information, do you need them to take responsibility for something or do you want to talk about deeper issues like your relationship?
  • How – We all have heard terrible tales of break-ups over WhatsApp or Other Bombs being dropped over Twitter. A personal conversation with someone who you get into arguments with ‘every quarter past’ as a family member is known to say, may not be the most productive. Some people may appreciate an agenda to prepare! You may gain from having a witness present.  
  • Where – The moment just before your son carries his new life partner over the threshold is not the best time or place to raise what they should do with your legacy. Some people may prefer to be somewhere familiar or outside so that you can walk and talk. Others may want to be close to safety – psychologically and physically.   
  • When – Sometimes we are so absorbed in our Big Thoughts that we miss the finer nuances. Don’t contaminate a birthday or other celebration. Consider the timing – telling them that they are to be the executor of your estate right before their final Board Exam might be distracting…  


Talk about what matters to whom it matters. If you feel you just cannot, do not despair. However, we want to urge you to at least speak to the professionals. These may include your attorney, your financial advisor and a counsellor.

Make sure that you do your homework – remember an attorney draws up the Will, but the Financial Advisor is the one who makes sure what you want to do is possible! It is important to provide your Financial Advisor with a copy and have it reviewed annually. See this as your opportunity to build peace for yourself and security for those you leave behind.  

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