The days and months after the death of a loved one are difficult for many reasons. Grief, shock and worry can all overcome those who are mourning, and the stress of dividing up assets and settling the deceased’s estate can tear a family apart. There are many reasons for this, with misunderstandings, differing opinions, and poor communication being just a few.
I personally watched both of my parents’ families ripped apart in this process. And, while many of us know a family who ended up not speaking for years after arguments about who should inherit mom’s wedding ring or grandpa’s antique table, a family can also be made stronger after a loss.
As executor, you are not only grieving, but tasked with the tough job of managing your loved one’s final bills, making sure any assets reach the rightful beneficiaries, and ultimately closing their estate in a court of law. You’ll also most likely end up the point person for any disagreements about how that all should be accomplished. At Executor.org, we walk executors through the process with a step-by-step plan to manage the more than 100+ steps involved in the role. We’ve also learned how successful executors not only get through the legal maze, but manage to help strengthen their family relationships in the process. Here are six ways:
1. Communicate frequently.
As executor, you will be handling a lot of paperwork, managing deadlines and, in general, keeping the typically year-long process of closing the estate moving forward. Since many of us have never served as executors and are unaware of how long the process can take, other family members — especially beneficiaries — might get anxious and wonder what is going on with the process. Keeping them updated, even if it’s just by sending out a short email every week, can help reduce their anxiety and tamp down any concerns that you aren’t doing the job properly.
2. Embrace sentimentality.
Most of us get at least a little sentimental after a loved one dies, especially if it’s a parent. Old memories, combined with a desire to remember all the good things about our loved one, can fuel nostalgia. If you’re cleaning out the basement and stumble upon the old family Monopoly game, take a picture of it and share it via a text or a Facebook post (tagging family members) along with a few words about your memories of playing the game. These memories can help unite a family that is grieving or that has become more distant over the years. There is one caution here, however. Make sure the memory you share was positive for everyone. Family members can experience events much differently and at times what is a good memory for you might be an unpleasant one for others.
3. Bring loved ones together.
When possible, do things face-to-face. If you plan to distribute items via a family auction, try to get everyone in the same room. It’s not always possible, of course, but in-person events are typically more relaxed and allow time for socializing beyond just the business at hand, which can help strengthen family relationships and, if you’ve grown apart over the years, help you reconnect.
4. Make the effort at the holidays.
Holidays are busy for most of us, especially if we have our own family and children now, not to mention in-laws who expect to get together to celebrate. After both of your parents have died, it can be easy to move away from making the effort to have two Thanksgiving dinners or make the annual trip home to see your siblings and their families over Memorial Day weekend. It can all seem less important now that mom and dad are gone, or we feel the visit can wait. The latter might be very true, but keeping these traditions up can help keep your family close and allow the next generation to form strong bonds with cousins, aunts and uncles, etc.
5. Rekindle old traditions.
While you’re getting together, why not enjoy the traditions of the past that you enjoyed with your loved ones? Did you all used to color eggs together along with your dad? Did your mom dust off the badminton set each July 4 so you all could play? Who says you can’t do this when you’re adults? These simple activities are a great way to honor your lost parent or loved one and recall old memories, as well as create new ones.
6. Celebrate their lives.
All of the things mentioned above create great opportunities to celebrate the lives of missing parents or other close family members. Some people think that they shouldn’t bring their deceased parents up in conversation at family gatherings as it will make everyone sad. The reality is that your parents are on your mind at those times, so bringing them up is typically a positive, not a negative. Talk to family members about bringing old family movies or photo albums to your next event or schedule a get-together just to look at these and reminisce. Sure, there might be some tears when looking back, but you’ll also likely find many memories make you smile.
The concept of “strengthening” a family is a mindset. It will play out in different ways in different families, but if you, as the executor, are committed to it, you can often achieve this objective. There are more than 100 duties that typically must be completed as executor, but don’t get so caught up in completing the process that you lose sight of the bigger picture — that family matters most. It will typically take a year to complete the role, regardless of how hard you push to do so, so remember to take time to be with family and celebrate the life of your loved one.