Like many people, all of my grandparents died when I was extremely young. While I have photos of me sitting on my grandmother’s lap and a few of my grandfather’s old shirts in a trunk in my basement, I have almost no real memories of my grandparents. Sure, I’ve heard my parents tell stories here and there but I’ve never heard anything that made me feel truly connected to my grandparents.
Last month, I brought my Have the Talk of a Lifetime Conversation Cards to my parent’s house and we came across a card that asked, “did your heritage play a role in your upbringing?” To my surprise, my mom began telling me a story about how her and her siblings used to dress up in traditional Greek attire and march in their church’s parade every March 25th to celebrate Greek Independence Day.
While the story was incredibly fascinating, I was extremely confused because I’ve spent my whole life thinking I was 100% German descent. After I went home that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about what else I possibly didn’t know about my family and my heritage.
I had heard about those websites that can show you all about your ancestry and family tree but I always thought they were too expensive and too complicated to use. But after hearing the stories that my mom shared about her heritage, I knew I had to find out more. After doing some research, I stumbled across the Family History Library – the largest genealogical library in the entire world AND the database for ancestry.com. The library has thousands of records dating as far back as the 1800’s and their main goal is just to help people discover more about who they are and where they come from.
It took me about 30 seconds to sign up and I began to start researching everything about my family’s history. The best part was that it was completely free. The website lets you upload pictures, enter information about other family members that may not be on the website yet, and connect with other members. I could search records based on names, marriages, death, age, location, and so much more. The Family History Library helped me discover so much information that I never knew was possible.
Turns out, my great grandparents moved to the United States from Greece when they got married so they could raise their family. I was even able to find my grandparents marriage certificate and find out that I have a great uncle that lives in Canada. My mom’s family lives all over the country so I never really got to see them growing up and when I did, we never really got a chance to talk about our heritage.
It’s funny how I was able to uncover an entire part of my family history just by asking one simple question from the Have the Talk of a Lifetime Conversation Cards. Now I have so much information about my family, heritage, and life. Just think about what you could uncover about your families background with just a few simple steps!
I have always had a deep appreciation for my Jewish heritage, but am not particularly religious. And so, it was surprising when my youngest daughter expressed an interest in Judaism and participating in a Birthright trip, which is a two-week Israel experience provided by a foundation for young adults who have a Jewish parent. My daughter told us that our son recommended that she go on her Birthright trip, something I didn’t realize until after she returned. It made sense; prior to his deployment to Afghanistan, he communicated that, should anything happen, he wished to be memorialized in a manner consistent with Jewish tradition. He intended to go on his Birthright trip following his enlistment in the Marines. Sadly, he died in 2015, which made my daughter’s visit even more meaningful.
She fell in love with Israel and became more committed to Judaism. Upon her return, she applied for a teaching fellowship there starting this fall. Once she was accepted, it was decided that my wife, my eldest daughter and I would accompany her to Israel. So off we went last month, for a two-week trip to the Holy Land. We explored the religious, historic and architectural wonders in this country, a fulcrum point of world affairs for more than 2,000 years. Everyone I know who had been there and who was surprised that I had not, said I absolutely must go. They were correct. The experience was amazing, of course, but not only because of the things we did and saw. And not because of the deep meaning and connection I felt to the country of my people.
What made the experience so amazing is that my family was with me, who were able to gain insights into my background and how important my Jewish heritage is to me. My wife is not Jewish and did not know much about the religious and historical aspects of Judaism and Israel. Throughout our 30-plus-year marriage I sometimes talked about my family members lost in the Holocaust, but never delved into their stories very deeply.
On this “bucket list” experience, my family was present as I found the city that is my grandfather’s namesake, “Lemberg,” among the Valley of the Communities, a massive 2.5-acre monument commemorating more than 5,000 Jewish communities which existed for hundreds of years but today, in most cases, nothing remains of them as a result of the Holocaust. Our tour guide took us to places many hear about on the news, such as the Golan Heights and West Bank. It became very clear to my wife and daughters, the complicated feelings I have about the events that resulted in the creation of the State of Israel, and the complex state of affairs that exists in the region today.
It wasn’t all about me, though. The land holds intense significance to Christians and Muslims as well. From the place where Jesus was crucified and buried, to the site of the first and second Jewish Temples on which now stands a Muslim mosque, we talked about the importance of these religious and archaeological sites, and how this experience affected their perspective on things. I am particularly proud of what my daughters gained from the experience, and how it might shape their social and world views.
The trip was also not all about the heavy stuff. We experienced some fun and amazing things, too, such as rafting down the Jordan River, floating in the Dead Sea (can’t help but float, because the water is 35% saltier than any ocean), shopping in centuries-old markets in Jerusalem and Tsfat (the birthplace of monotheistic religions) and relaxing on a pristine beach in Tel Aviv. This was, to say the very least, an event of a lifetime that I am grateful to have shared with my loved ones. I also feel grateful that my children drew me closer to my faith; something that likely would not have happened since my parents and grandparents are no longer around to influence this important part of who I am.
My big takeaway is, had we not gone on this amazing trip, my daughters and wife may never have known the true extent of my connection to my heritage and faith. I never really discussed it with any authentic emotion. Conversely, we likely would never have discussed the things we did about the past and present, or the future. I would urge people not to wait to talk about things that matter. Don’t just dream about the big trip — take it! Whether you’ve read a book or watched a movie that caused you to think or feel a certain way, or if you’ve been on a trip or experienced something meaningful, use it as a way to start a conversation about what’s important to you. It will become part of your story — your Talk of a Lifetime.
Whether you’re a family who sees their grandparents frequently or just gets together from time-to-time for holidays, reunions or vacations, you probably think your kids know their grandparents pretty well.
Yet according to a recent survey by Ancestry.com, 68 percent of those surveyed admitted that they didn’t know how their grandparents met, and over one third didn’t even know what their grandparents’ occupations were.
So how can parents help their kids take the initiative to really get to know their grandparents? To get the ball rolling, here are two great resources that can help facilitate meaningful questions and conversation starters at your next family get-together.
One of my favorites is the Have the Talk of a Lifetime Conversation Cards. There are 50 cards in a deck, and each one is printed with a different question like: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? What is something very few people know about you? Who has been the most influential person in your life?
To play, simply get your family together and take turns choosing cards. You can either have everyone answer, or just have the person who drew the card answer.
These nifty cards can help kick-start a wide variety of conversation topics that will get families talking, laughing and sharing stories to help your children get to know their grandparents in a new way.
Another helpful resource that’s loaded with ideas is the Have the Talk of a Lifetime Activity Guide. This free, 24-page online booklet offers tips on natural conversation starters, family tradition discussions, table talk starters, interactive games that spur conversations, ancestry and family tree talks, and fun family photo suggestions.
Both of these tools will help your kids learn more about your parents’ memorable events, people, places, values, as well as the lessons they learned along the way, which can help make them closer. And who knows? It might even help you understand your own mom or dad better a little better and strengthen your relationship, too.
Jim Miller is the creator of Savvy Senior (savvysenior.org), a syndicated information column for boomers and seniors that is published in more than 400 newspapers and magazines nationwide.
Jim is also a contributor to NBC’s “Today” show and KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City, author of The Savvy Senior: The Ultimate Guide to Health, Family and Finances for Senior Citizens (Hyperion, 2004), creator of the Senior Newswire service (seniornewswire.org), and voices a one-minute radio tip of the week that is broadcast in more than 1,000 senior centers and assisted living facilities via Golden Age Entertainment.
Jim has been featured in numerous high profile publications, including Time magazine, USA Today and The New York Times, and has made multiple appearances on CNBC, CNN, Retirement Living Television and national public television.
The old English nursery rhyme goes: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. The thought behind this rhyme was most likely to not have a child succumb to bullying or teasing, to be strong and resilient. Learning healthy emotional language is a tough subject because we often make the wrong assumptions or take things personally. We all know someone that has been hurt by the words of someone else. We all know someone that has never forgiven or been forgiven by someone because of those words. For most folk’s harsh words have caused enormous pain and they remember them like a stubborn elephant. You can Have the Talk of a Life Time a lot easier and healthier when we learn not to make assumptions and try to not take things personally.
In 1980, my father got remarried after my mother died. The result of this union was a new step brother, Harvey. On the first Thanksgiving after the marriage, I found myself sitting across from Harvey at the dinner table. Typical of a Calhoun get together, the noise was thunderous with everyone talking and no one listening, an art form the family had perfected. Harvey was extremely passionate with his food, stacked high like a mountain and falling over the edges of his plate. Much like a hog at a trough he ate with intensity. Before long, Harvey refilled up his plate for round two. I decided unwisely to tease him at that moment by saying: “Harvey, make sure you get enough to eat!” and our history changed in that moment. Harvey immediately emotionally shut down and became catatonic.
Later that same night, the phone rang and Harvey was madder than a wet hornet. He vehemently said: “I am as mad as hell and I am not going to take it any longer”. I did not want to tell Harvey that his quote was actually from the movie Network for fear of him taking me out to the wood shed and the for the obvious reason that humor was not appropriate at the moment. Harvey was at his wits end and I was the target of his anger. Together we decided it was best to deal with this subject face to face. As a result of my stupid remarks, I drove 1-1/2 hours one way that night to meet him for coffee and to help him process the day and to understand why he took what I said so personally. At the same time, I was making assumptions about why he got so mad and believed it was about me. After a few cups of Joe, I learned that his father would physically beat him if he ever left any food on his plate. Sometimes in life, you can’t make this crap up. Harvey had indeed taken my comment personally, but I was the triggering mechanism. Cleary, I had made bad assumptions about his anger. I was able to communicate that I was guilty of bad humor and really had no intention of hurting him. He was able to be real and vulnerable and let a new step-brother in on a painfully personal traumatic story. Thank goodness we made the effort to talk, share and build a bridge of understanding.
30 years later, I was asked to read at Harvey’s funeral. I could not help but reflect upon that first Thanksgiving we had spent together. In hindsight, I really don’t know if it was dumb luck or courage that made us get together that night. Life is indeed short. We must all make a sincere effort to Have the Talk with the folks we love and care about. Forgiveness and second chances are a good thing. We do not want our life story to be defined by misunderstanding, assumptions and taking things too personally. Give yourself a gift and Have the Talk. Be realistic and understand that developing a heathy emotional language will be a work in progress simply because we are human. Do your best, forget the rest. We all are blessed when we find connection, love, good conversation and a great cup of Joe!
It seems odd to wear anything other than black to a funeral, right? Funerals are supposed to be a place to mourn so you might think it would be disrespectful to wear a bright, happy color like pink or yellow. It seems so customary to do things like wear black or order the most expensive flower arrangement from your local florist for funerals, but that’s not necessarily the case anymore.
Recently, I attended the funeral of one of my classmates who died very unexpectedly. In a smaller town like mine, a death like this one brings the entire community together. Lines poured out of our local church but instead of tear-stained, black-clad visitors, the entire church was covered in a sea of pink. People were wearing pink ties, pink dresses, and pink shoes. The church was decorated with bouquets and balloons that were all different shades of pink, while there was still a somber feeling in the room, the pink made everyone feel a little bit lighter and happier. Pink was my classmate’s favorite color and her family made it a point to ask the visitors to wear pink as opposed to black. It was important for the family to include this aspect at the funeral as a way to focus on her life, not her death.
In every aspect of life, details are important. The same should be said for a funeral service; details can help personalize your funeral or memorial service to tailor it specifically to your life. In this case, just including one color helped the visitors feel my classmate’s presence. There are many ways to get to know your loved ones on a deeper level, Have the Talk of a Lifetime offers lots of resources to help you start the conversation with your loved ones about the important aspects of their life. These conversations can help you and your family members plan a much more personalized service that truly reflects your life. Here are a few ideas that will help make your funeral much more personal…
Candles: While creating a feeling of warmth, candles also symbolize life, love, and celebration. The great thing about including candles is that you can personalize them, too. You can have candles engraved to include the name of the deceased, the date of birth and date of death, or a quote or prayer. Candles can also be given to the attendees of the funeral as a keepsake.
Urns: If you would like to be cremated, there are many different colors, designs, and shapes of urns. Choose a creative one that you feel embodies you or your loved one. Like candles, you can also have these personalized by engraving or putting pictures on them.
Memorial Banner: Looking to really go above and beyond? You can hire an aerial banner, a plane flying a banner, to fly over your town to let people know who has passed away.
Memory Tree: A memory tree is a cardboard tree or vase holding tree branches where guests can write their favorite memories with their loved one on an index card. Attendees hang the card on the tree to share with others. This is a great way for people to share their personal stories and it helps honor the memory of their loved one.
Some ideas for the kids….
Death can be a hard thing for children to understand and funerals can be a very confusing time. However, there are ways to help them understand and express their feelings.
A drawing table: Kids love to color, set up a table with lots of paper and coloring utensils and have the kids draw a picture for their loved one. This can help children express themselves as well as keep them occupied.
Clay Hearts: Similar to coloring, kids can play with model clay and create sculptures for their loved ones, such as a clay heart. You can purchase modeling clay at your local craft store and set up a station where they can model and paint their sculptures.
A person lives on through the memories of their loved ones so it’s very important to share those memories with others. Even something as small as guests wearing your favorite color can make a huge difference for your funeral service. Make sure to Have the Talk of a Lifetime with your friends and family so they know how you want to be remembered.
Mitchell-Wiedefeld Funeral Home, Inc.
We all know that times change, as a society we live and do many things differently than we did just two decades ago. Sometimes it is important to take a moment to look at some of the changes we have made and ask ourselves if it was the right change. Perhaps there was some wisdom in the “old” ways, can there be a meeting in the middle?
For many decades now, society has pushed death further and further away. There was a time when most people died at home; the embalmer brought his equipment to the house and did his work right there. Then, there was a week-long wake right there in the living room before going to church and cemetery. Now, when Mom and Dad get old enough they’re not as mobile as they used to be and are consequently not as self-sufficient, they move to a nursing home. Ultimately, they either die there or at a hospital and from there are transported to the funeral home. Traditionally, once at the funeral home, a viewing is planned and then on to church and cemetery.
We have removed the death, and even aging, of our loved ones from our every day sight. And now, fewer and fewer people are having viewings after death. Death has become so uncomfortable that our society, as a whole, not only does not want to see it but does not want to even think about it. What is the result? Memorializing and paying tribute to our loved ones is on a steady decline.
When I meet with families, I so often find them sitting in front of me having the discussion regarding the services that they want for their mother or father for the very first time, even though the death has been anticipated for a while. Many take a no muss, no fuss approach, or say that they don’t want to do “all that” for one parent that they did a few years ago for the other. In those cases, they most often end up having a cremation or private burial service and a memorial service later on, all with little or no personalization.
Would they have put on more of a fitting tribute, a much more personal memorial, had they thought about it and talked about it ahead of time? You bet they would have. What pains me to think about is the moment they realize that. Perhaps they attend a service for a friend months later and see some personalized tributes that they were not aware of at the time of their loved one’s death. They think to themselves, “wow, we had one chance to send Mom or Dad off with a fitting tribute and we blew it.”
That is why funeral directors and pretty much anyone involved with death and funerals wants families to have those discussions ahead of time. The Have the Talk of a Lifetime campaign is all about encouraging people to have conversations. We don’t usually think of it as a means to help prevent people from ending up living with a lot of regret, but for me, that is exactly what it boils down to. After having thorough discussion, many families may still decide to not have the full, traditional funeral that had previously been the family’s custom. But if they do so in lieu of a less involved, but much more appropriate and personal tribute for their loved one then, even as a funeral director, I say more power to them. Have the Talk of a Lifetime is not about us, those involved with death and funerals. It is about families and reflecting upon the last thing they did for their loved one and feeling good about it.
By: Wayne Stellmach, IMSA and Wilbert Funeral Services
Thinking the other day about the merits of Having the Talk of a Lifetime with loved ones, I suddenly had a flashback to 1974. I was in my final year of undergraduate studies at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL and working various jobs to put myself through college. One of those jobs was as an orderly at the county nursing home, a job that certainly had its share of challenges but paid a bit more than my other gig flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Oh, I also played in a rock band in the local clubs, but as much as I loved performing, I quite unexpectedly experienced deeper rewards working in the nursing home…and thinking back now, it was because of the very same dynamics and power of Having the Talk.
As you might expect, there was a lot of mundane work and heavy lifting involved as an orderly in a nursing home. But there were also opportunities to talk with those for whom I was caring. I remember Virginia, a spunky 90+ year old who worked a farm with her husband and spoke of the love she had for the animals, the land, and fun-filled evenings playing Euchre with family and friends. She was still a spitfire with a mischievous sense of humor and I could envision how she must have been the life of the party. She was now alone in the world but she wasn’t one for self-pity and loved to talk about politics and hear about my world outside her four walls.
I remember Matt who couldn’t have been more than 40, largely bedridden due to advancing muscular dystrophy but having a loving mom who would visit often and make sure his small refrigerator was stocked with beer. Every evening, Matt was allowed one beer and when I was on duty, I was asked to sit with him, pop open his beer and assist him with his daily indulgence and brief escape into normalcy. At first uncomfortable, I came to anticipate those times. In halting style, Matt would talk about his earlier life as an accountant that played to his obsession with order…before disorder threw his life upside-down, but he never said that. Instead, he would talk about the Chicago Cubs and Chicago Bears, and we’d talk music and bands. We were both avid Beatles fans…his favorite song was Yesterday.
And I remember Harold, probably in his early 60s, who also required substantial help getting into and out of bed, bathing and eating. Most others thought Harold was somewhat cranky and incommunicative, but he talked to me. He had been a worker at the local Del Monte canning operation until ALS wreaked its havoc on him. He worked nights and still tended to prefer evenings, loving to read books, mostly fiction but also, he loved some of the classics such as Moby Dick and Great Expectations. We talked about murder mysteries and Captain Ahab. His family didn’t come visit very often, but he spoke with pride about his son who was building a decent life in the financial services industry.
My job never allowed me a lot of time for these conversations, but they were cumulative over the course of the 9 months that I worked at the nursing home. I slowly saw the mosaic of these peoples’ lives through snippets of conversations. Only snippets, but precious talks to them and in retrospect to me. We connected. I learned what was important to them. I learned that living graciously with what gifts you had, despite hardships, was preferable to complaining. I saw how much they wished they could talk some more…me too. And when I had to say my goodbyes before I graduated and left that little part-time job, I was stunned to see, of all people, the hard-nosed Harold cry.
All because we talked. Take the time to talk to your loved ones. Have the Talk of a Lifetime.
By: Jim Miller, The Savvy SeniorMost adult children don’t know much about their elderly parents’ end-of-life plans, but they need to. Getting up to speed on their finances, legal documents and funeral decisions is important because some day you might have to help them handle their financial affairs or care, or execute their estate and funeral plan after they die. Without this information, your job becomes much more difficult. Here are some tips that can help you become better informed. Start by having a thoughtful, direct conversation with your parents. If you’re uncomfortable talking to them about this topic, use this article as a prompter. If you have siblings, it’s a good idea to get them involved too so your parents will know everyone is concerned. When you have your talk, you’ll need to find out where your parents keep key documents and how they want certain things handled when they die or if they become incapacitated. Here are three areas to focus on.
Legal DocumentsBecause fewer than half of Americans have prepared a will, it’s very important to find out if your parents have an updated will or trust and where it’s located. Also, find out if they have a power of attorney document that names someone to handle their financial matters if they become incapacitated, as well as an advance directive, which includes a living will and a medical power of attorney that spells out their wishes regarding their end-of-life medical treatment. If they don’t have these documents prepared, now’s the time to make them.
Financial RecordsFind out where your parents keep their important financial information including their bank and investment records, insurance policies, retirement and/or pension benefits, tax returns and bills, along with any property deeds, titles, loans or lease agreements. In addition, get the names and contact information of their lawyer, accountant, broker, tax preparer and insurance agents so you can call them to help you sort things out if needed.
Funeral PlansKnowing your parents’ funeral plans or preferences in advance can significantly reduce your stress of making these arrangements at an emotional time after their death. Plus it ensures their final farewell will be exactly what they want. Whether you’re helping your parents pre-plan their funerals or are gathering information so you can do it for them later, your parents will need to make a number of decisions such as; whether they want to be buried or cremated; whether they prefer a formal, religious funeral or a simple memorial service; and what music they want to be played at their service? For a more detailed list of funeral and memorial planning questions, download the Checklist. This will help your parents determine what they want, and how they want to be remembered.
About Jim MillerJim Miller is the creator of Savvy Senior (savvysenior.org), a syndicated information column for boomers and seniors that is published in more than 400 newspapers and magazines nationwide. Jim is also a contributor to NBC’s “Today” show and KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City, author of The Savvy Senior: The Ultimate Guide to Health, Family and Finances for Senior Citizens (Hyperion, 2004), creator of the Senior Newswire service (seniornewswire.org), and voices a one-minute radio tip of the week that is broadcast in more than 1,000 senior centers and assisted living facilities via Golden Age Entertainment. Jim has been featured in numerous high-profile publications, including Time magazine, USA Today and The New York Times, and has made multiple appearances on CNBC, CNN, Retirement Living Television and national public television
Mark Allen, Executive Director and CEO
International Order of the Golden RuleWhen I was in elementary school, I discovered that one of my classmates was the child of a funeral home owner. I pitied this attractive, popular girl for having a parent that my 8-year old brain imagined to be a beady-eyed, sallow-skinned man who lurked around a cobwebbed funeral home on dark and stormy nights. One day she invited me to a birthday party at her home. I accepted despite dreading the thought of meeting her creepy father. To my surprise, on the day of her party, a man resembling Will Ferrell, not Bela Lugosi, greeted me at the door. He was funny, charming and warm. This was a funeral director? I couldn’t believe that all those Hollywood movies got it so wrong.
That early experience paid off a few years later when I had the opportunity to work for a trade association for independent funeral homes. I’ve now had the pleasure of meeting thousands of funeral directors. Rarely do I meet one who isn’t friendly, compassionate and caring, yet many adults still describe funeral directors as…well, scary. I believe this perception is a reflection of our attitudes toward death rather than a judgment of people who work in funeral homes. After all, several national polls consistently rank funeral directors in the top 10 of most trusted professionals. I’ve learned that they come in all sizes, shapes, colors and personalities. I also know that caring for families during the worst days of their lives is a calling, a 24/7 lifestyle, and evidence of their deeply-held desire to help others, even when that means sacrificing holidays, birthdays and anniversaries with their own families.
Today many people are unable to articulate why funerals are valuable. No one has explained to them that rites and ceremonies have tremendous power to help families cope with loss, regardless of how traditional or unusual those ceremonies are. Given this lack of information, it’s natural to choose the easiest path. For many, that means skipping any type of funeral ceremony. For others, it means throwing a party that has little connection to the person whose life is being honored and all but ignores the healing value of expressing grief among friends and loved ones. After all, who wants to be a downer at a party?
Acknowledging grief through gatherings that are meaningful to both the deceased and survivors is an essential step toward recovery. Have the Talk of a Lifetime was created to help families and friends start talking about what is most meaningful to them and how they’d like people to reflect on their lives. Not only does Have the Talk offer resources to start these conversations, but it also provides access to a network of funeral and memorialization professionals who are committed to using their expertise to help families create one-of-a-kind ceremonies. With proper guidance and planning, loved ones often find comfort in these ceremonies long after they’ve ended.
While the subject of death will always be at least a little scary for most of us, getting to know a funeral director is not at all scary. In fact, you’ll most likely find knowing them to be comforting and reassuring. Take a moment to find a Talk of a Lifetime expert in your area.