My Mother's Ethical Will

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One of the first things my mother did when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer was contact an estate attorney. She was always good at planning ahead, and she treated death no differently. On came a slew of paperwork, an advance health care directive, a living will, and executor and power of attorney appointments. My mother selected a funeral home, the cemetery and her own gravesite next to my father’s. The fact that she had done all this end-of-life prep didn’t make burying my mother any easier. But her planning made it possible for me to carry out her wishes, and that did bring me comfort.

There’s something called an ethical will that’s designed to pass on guiding principles, values and hopes for a family’s future. My mother never formally assembled an ethical will, but growing up in a household where my mother was always imparting a lesson—from compassion for others to table manners to how to cook asparagus—my mother’s ethical will (which was really more like an encyclopedia) had been ingrained in me. 

The most valuable lesson from my mother’s ethical encyclopedia is her insistence that I trust myself. She taught me to trust myself during times of indecision and to go against the grain of a group decision if my gut was telling me otherwise. “Always trust your feelings,” she’d say. This guiding principle has helped me find my way through several big financial decisions, professional challenges, and conflicts with friends. Of course I still struggle in moments of doubt, but I have my mother’s voice and faith urging me to follow her advice…which is to follow my own advice, and that gives me strength.

I miss my mom a lot, but I’ve been able to move forward without too much grief. I’m convinced that the main reason for this is because of the legacy of values and teachings my mother passed on to me. I don’t get paralyzed by obstacles (big or small) because I’m wondering what my mother would do—I know what she would do and how she would advise me. Her opinions on things that have transpired since her death have always been, and continue to be, crystal clear to me. 

I believe that the lessons my mother taught me were ways for her to prepare me for life without her. As grateful as I am for her fastidious attention to the administrative side of her end-of-life planning, it’s her ethical encyclopedia that is most valuable to me. She taught me that I would be okay without her and that I can be my own sounding board, my own advisor and my own moral compass. And that’s something that will extend her life and lessons far into my future.

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