Leaving legacies

Few of us would have missed the unfolding story of the elderly widow who reportedly left her fortune to the care of a man half her age, whom she only met whilst on a tour in China. Relatives alarmed by the inexplicable and sudden nature of her decision have questioned its legality.

This case bears resemblance to some recent cases that I have encountered. Though the expected value of the legacies involved may vary significantly and the parties in conflict are family members rather than strangers, the emotions involved are similar.

In one particular case, the youngest sibling, who had been regarded as a favourite of the surviving parent, suddenly took his elderly mother under his care. He had, until then, not been very involved with the family, having to manage work and marital problems. Three older siblings took turns to look after their elderly parents and when their father passed on three years ago, their mother’s health steadily declined.

Six months ago, the youngest sibling appeared and asked for a loan from his mother to help bail out his ailing business. When the older children voiced their concerns, the request was withdrawn.

Two months later, he invited his mother to stay with him and since then, the older siblings have not had access to her. Visits were turned away with the reason that their mother was sleeping and should not be disturbed. When the siblings tried to call their mother, these calls went unanswered. The older siblings’ concern further increased when some of their mother’s follow-up medical appointments were missed.

As I reflect on this family’s situation, several things come to my mind. Firstly, with old age and the approach of death, past family dynamics and tensions that lay dormant may be revived. It would seem that with the short amount of time we have left with the elderly parent, several things become more urgent.

For example, children who may have felt that they neglected being filial would try their best to make up for it. This may also be true of others who feel that they somehow have fallen short of the expectations of the surviving parent. It is as if they are still looking for their parent’s approval and love.

Secondly, the elderly parent may be unused to the loss of power and influence over his or her life, and also that of others. They may try to reassert themselves by making decisions that are not the best informed; for example, refusing certain care arrangements. This response may be true for those who have been the ‘Leader of the Clan’ and wielded considerable power over others.

Having said that, it is a normal desire for us to have power and control over our lives, no matter how young or old we are. However, we have to recognise that at times, we need to divest our power and come under the care of others.

Thirdly, with the approach of death, the window of opportunity to repair fractured relationships is fast drawing shut. Parties that have been cut off from each other may be yearning for an opportunity to restore ties. Sadly, however, each party often waits for the other to make the first move before offering the olive branch of peace. Pride, arrogance, and fear of being rejected by the other can get in the way of restoring such relationships.

In this period of Christmas, most people would exchange gifts – and perhaps there can be no greater gift than the offer of forgiveness to one another. What legacy is more valuable than healed relationships, and what expression of the spirit of Christmas is more meaningful than peace within families? The wonderful thing about such gifts is that they can be offered both by those who have been hurt and offended, as well as by those who have caused offence.

What legacy will you leave to your family this Christmas?

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Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.