My Parents Don’t Want Me To Inherit A Mess & I’m So Grateful

Tucked in the back of our Box of Important Things™ is a folder I don’t open. I know what’s in it, because my mom has told me a thousand times. It is a handy, organized guide to her death. Specifically, that nondescript manila folder contains adulty documents like advance directives, do-not-resuscitate orders, financial forms, and the last will and testament for both of my parents. Occasionally, they swap out some things in the folder to ensure every document is as current and helpful as possible. As a neurodivergent hot mess mom of four, I don’t think I own any neatly organized folders — except for this one.

Whenever my fingers graze that folder on the hunt for a needed birth certificate or tax form, my breath catches in my throat. I remind myself I don’t need to look at it today while tamping down panic about the day I will need to. That folder, while small, takes up so much emotional space.

Despite my strong feelings about this folder, I am relieved it exists. I know it’s a gift.

I’m one of those lucky, annoying adults who had a great childhood where I never doubted for a second that I was loved and cared for. It makes sense to me that my parents plan to carry that love and care into the beyond. I know this isn’t always the case.

As an elder millennial, most of my close friends are also dealing with aging parents — and quite a few have buried one already. Because we had kids later than previous generations, the topic of our geriatric parents comes up often. Conversations about potty training and loose teeth are interspersed with intense discussions about burial plots and medical directives. One close friend is in the throes of hospice for her beloved mother-in-law and hosted a family dinner to plan her death and funeral. The family caregiver is now the one who needs care. It’s shocking how fast we find ourselves at this point. Another friend, who lost her father suddenly to cancer several years ago, had to scramble to make end-of-life arrangements. Despite that experience, she says her mom has yet to make any plans for herself — leaving her feeling stressed and powerless. How do we make someone plan for the end? How do we parent our parents?

I asked my mom why she is so perfunctory about her death. I don’t know how I will take even one trip around the sun without her here, and she’s seemingly always thinking about it. Her answer was so simple. For her, it’s just a continuation of mothering. “Every day on this planet, I plan something to make your and your brothers’ lives easier after we go,” she told me. “It’s not morbid. I’m just breaking the cycle.”

I’m all for cycle-breaking, but I asked her to elaborate. I’ve lost all of my grandparents at this point, but I do not remember anything about their last wishes. “My dad died so young we never had any time to plan anything, and your dad’s parents just kind of went through life on a Ferris wheel, so it was very disorganized,” she told me. “We don’t want our kids to have to go through that.”

There were battles over heirlooms and sentimental pieces, too. She’s laid all that out for us as well (I get the Tiffany lamp and her wedding wine glasses). Her own mother’s final affairs were in order because they had the gift of time and resources to help her do so — and it was an entirely different experience. That’s what she wants for us.

Hearing her frame The Folder in this manner encouraged me to begin some planning myself. I definitely inherited the “life on a Ferris wheel” trait from my grandparents, but the thought of leaving my own children with a mess after my death feels contrary to the way I’ve been mothering them their whole lives. Her words shifted my entire perspective. My parents have invested their entire selves into helping us navigate this world. Their own experiences with death and dying have shaped their actions in an effort to give us a better experience than they had. That’s not morbid — that’s love.

Meg St-Esprit, M. Ed., is a journalist and essayist based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s a mom to four kids via adoption as well as a twin mom. She loves to write about parenting, education, trends, and the general hilarity of raising little people.

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