Solving The Puzzling World of End-of-Life Planning

A block of dedicated time is carved out each and every Sunday morning in my parents home. Sunday mornings are happily spent in anticipation of tackling the ultimate prize – the successful completion of yet another mind bending New York Times crossword puzzle. 

Pencils are sharpened and lined up on the breakfast table awaiting the arrival of a brand new NYT puzzle. My parents take their first glimpse at the empty puzzle, look at the title for the theme, and begin methodically reading the clues out loud.

A cup of coffee is poured, hot and plentiful, while a green tea bag is dipped ceremoniously in steaming hot water in Dad’s favorite mug. Together they begin to ponder the clues laid out before them. They take turns providing answers and one gently writes letters in the blank squares. Completing the puzzle will bring such satisfaction and a sense of great accomplishment at the end of the day. 

Weaving together the clues and mapping out the words of a crossword puzzle is similar to piecing together the many layers of one’s life. Some clues are easy to find the answers to, while others are not. This is especially true after the death of a spouse. It is not uncommon for family members to spend enormous amounts of time and energy looking for clues and attempting to piece together answers in order to complete the complex puzzle of someone’s life. 

The surviving spouse, or family member, will need to decide what to do with everything that is left behind. If there have been no prior conversations, plans or instructions prepared ahead of time, the puzzle will be more difficult and arduous to solve when the inevitable happens. Providing a clear map of answers and written guidance will help simplify and expedite the mountains of tasks at hand after one’s death.

Let’s consider all of the personal items that someone owns. There is a tendency to keep and store myriad things that aren’t really needed or used. They might currently have in their possession (or possibly stored somewhere else) clothing, jewelry, collections, artwork, cars, “knick-knacks,” sports equipment, as well as copious amounts of photos, paperwork and mementos.

Maybe it’s time to ask your loved ones to carve out some time each Sunday, perhaps after doing the crossword puzzle, for them to “puzzle together” what they want to have happen to all of their possessions when they are no longer on this earth. Perhaps, you might even be bold enough to suggest that it’s time to shred, distribute, discard and donate some belongings while they are still living — and that you are willing to help, of course. I imagine it might give greater pleasure and satisfaction giving items away when you are alive, rather than the default of everything being disposed of in a frenzied manner and without much thought at some point in the future. 

The formidable undertaking of trying to piece together the clues of a someone’s life will be dramatically easier by taking action today. This is not unlike the euphoria of knowing the answers to those unknown clues in complicated crossword puzzles. 

Formulating a comprehensive plan today for the eventual disposition of property and possessions can provide the same satisfied feelings that bubble up after the successful completion of the Sunday crossword puzzle.

This article was posted in “Inspirational Stories for Architects of Change” on Maria Shriver’s website at