Getting to Acceptance
This is the fifth and final installment in the story of my sister’s suicide. This last episode deals with what happened after her death especially as regards the two sons and property she left behind. I discuss some of my feelings about being her executor and the conflict that arose among family and former family which figured heavily in the discharge of those responsibilities. Suicide is violent, sudden death and it extracts a heavy toll on the people left behind to deal with the aftermath, sometimes even contributing to the breakup of families.
The day after the police found my sister’s body I flew to Louisville to make the arrangements for the funeral. My husband and I stayed with my other sister, and my daughter and her husband also came to help. As soon as I arrived I began to notice fault lines developing with family, friends, and ex-husbands. Different people wanted utterly divergent outcomes for her estate and were at odds about who should get what. Her house was in disarray and I was unable to find a will or any of her financial records. To complicate matters further she had left two suicide notes with different directives, one on her computer on one by hand. Neither suicide note appeared to be the product of a sound mind, however, as required by Kentucky estate law to make them valid.
Carlton’s boyfriend was still living at her house and had no plans to move out. He was mentioned in the suicide notes but was not designated as the heir to her farm. In the months leading up to Carlton’s death the house and property were not maintained and began to decline. After her death the big old house was left unlocked. Jewelry, cameras, art, electronics, rugs and furniture disappeared.
By law Carlton’s sons had first claim to her estate. But both sons are disabled so an outright inheritance would complicate their Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare benefits. Any funds for them would need to be put into “special needs trusts” or would put them at risk for losing benefits upon which they depended. Once safeguarded in a special needs trust, those funds could be used to improve their quality of life. Upon their deaths those funds would go back to the government.
Unfortunately, my nephews had no impartial advocate—rather, everyone had differing opinions about what they needed. Their parents had been in and out of court for fifteen years since their divorce over this disagreement so little effective long term planning had been done. I was aware that Carlton provided many of the extras that made her sons lives better, such as regular outings, visits, allowances, trips, and other small expenses. I wanted to make sure that the kinds of things provided by their mother were still available to them after her death.
My surviving sister and I worked together to make Carlton’s arrangements. The visitation, funeral and burial all took place in a blur for me. I wrote her obituary and gave her eulogy but throughout most of the actual events I was numb. Fortunately many old family friends showed up and provided support. Carlton had a big turnout for every occasion that marked the end of her life. Many people loved her.
We were gathered at my sister’s house after the burial when the subject of who would serve as Carlton’s executor first came up for discussion. Having done most of the work for my father I was not eager to take on the responsibility and I knew this estate would be far more complicated. But it quickly became clear that I was the most likely person to do it. Others either couldn't or didn't want to do it or had been in adversarial positions with Carlton during her life and thus were inappropriate choices after her death.
I knew certain fault lines existed in my family and had for a long time, as they do in most families. I saw them after my father’s death though he had all his affairs in very order and each of his children was treated equally in his will. Family conflicts around money and property inflame unsettled scores, jealousy, envy and distrust. In this case the deceased’s affairs were anything but in order and a money and property were at stake. Our old family fault lines trembled into an earthquake during the discussion about her estate. I remain saddened that on the day I buried one sister I became estranged from the other. Our disagreement about the estate was only one part of what led to our estrangement. But it is still the most painful part of the aftermath.
I returned home I was exhausted and torn. After I great deal of thought I decided to look into serving as Carlton’s executor. I hired an estate attorney to explore what would be involved. She found a recorded will from my sister from 2013 when she was still married to her second husband, certainly her last will. The will clearly stated that in the event that her husband could no longer serve she appointed me as her executor. She clearly stated that her funds should go into a trust for her sons after her death. Of course, she never told me about any of this! But the will made my decision and a month after her death I received appointment from the court as executor.
Being executor meant I could use Carlton’s available cash to repair and sell her house, pay all her bills and with the rest establish a special needs trust for Alex and Peter for which I would be trustee. In the first weeks of my role I discovered that some of the poor advice Carlton had received from investment managers and estate planners put most of her cash outside her bank account out of reach and at risk to being claimed by her ex-husbands. I was very angry that her lifelong insouciance about financial matters was now spilling over to complicate my life as her executor. Obviously, I was in the anger stage!
During that same time period my attorney was able to get the boyfriend to move out of the house and relinquish any claims to the property. We got a locksmith out to make the property secure and hired a house sitter to stay overnight. Shortly before Christmas my daughter and I returned to Louisville to clean out her closets and hire a realtor. We set aside some of Carlton’s art, jewelry and clothing and invited family and friends to pick it up while we were there. We made a catalog of all the work that was needed for the house to go on the market. It was a towering list including replacing two septic systems, working on drainage, mitigating mold, mowing, raking, removing tree limbs from her ten acres of pasture, mending fences and completing a much needed deep cleaning. With help from the realtor and my estate attorney we got all the work contracted and finished. The house was staged and put on the market in May and finally sold in November, just weeks before we were expecting to run out of cash. The people who bought her house also bought all the rest of her personal property which saved me the difficulties of an estate sale.
Carlton’s first husband, my nephews’ father, had sued my sister sixteen times between their divorce and her death. I harbored anger at him for how difficult he made things for her. Still, he was now left alone with the responsibility to assist his two disabled sons and I had to understand how hard this was for him. Fortunately he had plenty of money of his own. Unfortunately, our ways of thinking about the needs of his sons were very divergent. From the beginning he brought his several attorneys to write letters I found most unhelpful. I felt that I, as his mother’s sister, had an interest in serving as trustee over funds from her to make sure her wishes for them were respected. He felt that, as the remaining parent, it was his right to sole control of any funds that were left after her estate was settled. Thus, we had a conflict. About ten months after her death he filed suit against the estate which went to mediation.
From a mindfulness perspective my biggest challenge was not to let anger turn into hate, especially during the mediation. I knew that giving in to hate I would make me lose my way in suffering, which sometimes happened. In the early months hardly a day went by that I didn’t have to struggle with angry thoughts and the urge to lash out at him in some way. I am proud to say that I never gave in to actions. Gradually I got control of the thoughts too.
We finally arrived at a settlement about seven months ago. Since the settlement things have gotten better. My nephews have moved from their own acute grief and confusion through various stages to what looks more and more like acceptance. It has been harder for Alex as he used to spend every weekend with his mother at her home, where he could roam the farm. Peter, who is younger and lives independently out of state, has part time job and a girlfriend whose family is supportive. Both Alex and Peter speak of their mother with loving forgiveness.
Looking back on the past two years I can see how I have also moved much closer to acceptance of Carlton's death. The work of the estate is just about done and I am rarely angry about the outcome. I have accepted the separation from my surviving sister and no longer feel angry at her. I haven’t felt the presence of Carlton's “ghost” for many months. I can look at pictures of her without anguish or anger. I no longer feel her life is defined by her death—that she somehow nullified all her good qualities with the violence of suicide. I feel no shame in telling someone that my sister killed herself. I still wish I could have stopped her but I don’t feel guilty anymore. I know I couldn't have stopped her. I no longer feel the need to blame anyone else either. What I feel is a lot of love for my beautiful, talented, unhappy sister, an abiding sadness that she is no longer here to share our lives. But most of all I feel gratitude that I have much closer relationships with my nephews, Alex and Peter, to remind me of her. Other than a few cherished objects, they are what I have left of Carlton.