End of Life Planning

2/4/2022 | By Margit Novack

In “Creating Legacy Through Objects” in her book Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life, author and professional senior move manager Margit Novack explores heartwarming ways of dividing family possessions, whether heirlooms or simply meaningful odds and ends. “Their solution is about relationship, not ownership,” she says of one family’s strategy. (Excerpt used with permission of Margit Novack.)

Dividing family possessions can be a source of struggle, as it was with my brother Michael and me, but for many, it can be a source of meaningful discussion. Workbooks like Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate provide templates for discussions about dividing personal property among family members in a positive way.

I think the biggest determinant of how family members deal with belongings after a death is their existing relationship. Michael and I had a poor relationship while my mom was alive, so it’s not surprising that we argued about what would happen to her things after she died. For family members who have good relationships, dividing possessions after a death can be creative, elegant, and meaningful. When this occurs, the items themselves aren’t the legacy; the way they are dealt with becomes the legacy.

After their mom died, two sisters, who were friends of mine, couldn’t decide who would get two special items they both wanted. One was a sterling silver pitcher their mother purchased at an auction when the girls were young. The pitcher had an ornate letter “F” engraved on it. Their mom must have been omniscient because years later, both girls married men whose last names began with “F.” Some things are too strange to ponder.

The other item was a beautiful ring their mother purchased on a shopping trip to New York City.

Neither sister could choose one item over the other, so they developed a plan to share them, and over the years, added their own traditions. The ring was always worn on New Year’s Eve, and the pitcher was always returned to the other sister with fresh flowers in it on New Year’s Day. The ring … is a wearable memory, an intimate, personal way of staying connected with their mother throughout the year. The pitcher is a physical presence displayed proudly in both homes. Both objects lead to stories about their mom, the coincidence about the letter “F,” and the ritual they started in order to share the two items.

I love how the sisters handled this because their solution is about relationship, not ownership; their ritual celebrates loving memories of their mom as well as the good relationship between the siblings. It’s a wonderful legacy to pass on to the next generation.

Between them, my friends have five children, four girls and a boy. The sisters assume they will need to decide who keeps the ring and who keeps the pitcher, since when they die, getting agreement among five cousins and spouses will be more complex than it was between two sisters. I like to think that their children will find a way to continue the tradition. They have a good start; their parents have given them a great role model.

My brother Mark and I do something similar with a needlepoint chair that belonged to my mother. Some years the chair lives at my house and some years at his. For me, the chair is a physical symbol of the good relationship I have with Mark and Sue, my sister-in-law. Of all the things my mother left me, I think my relationship with Mark is the legacy she would be most proud of, and that’s the legacy I’ll pass on to my kids.

Creating valuable new family possessions

Recently, I heard of another way objects were being used to create legacy. Instead of passing down objects from the past, some people have begun to take an object from the present and transform it into a meaningful ritual that celebrates new connections while preserving those from the past.

It started several years ago, at a Passover Seder, but it could occur at any family event. My friend took a new tablecloth and asked each person at the Seder to sign their name. She then embroidered the names on the tablecloth. The following year, the same tablecloth was used. One guest had passed away since the last Seder, and their name on the tablecloth was a way of keeping them at the table. New guests were asked to sign their name, and these were later embroidered as well. They are starting the third year of this tradition, and already her children have selected the tablecloth as something they want to have – when they grow up. My friend took an ordinary item that had no special meaning and transformed it, creating a ritual that celebrates family and friends and evolves over time. Her legacy combines connection and tradition, looks backwards and forwards, is inclusive and simple. It’s perfect.

Book cover for ‘Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life’

Read the Seniors guide review of Squint or enjoy another excerpt, “Caregiving,” on lessons in caregiving from aging pets. For an entire book of wisdom like these lessons on dividing family possessions and heirlooms, order your copy of Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life by Margit Novack.

Margit Novack

Margit Novack offers a unique perspective on aging. A pioneer in the senior move management field, Novack founded Moving Solutions in 1996 and helped older adults and their families through the process of downsizing. She helped establish the National Association of Senior and Specialty Move Managers (NASMM) and chaired the group’s ethics commission. Now, Novack is in her early 70s and experiencing some of the issues that her clients and their families faced. She brings her insights to her book, "Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life."