In 1978 — when they were in their 60s — Anne Ziff’s parents called. Out of the blue, they said they wanted to discuss where their important papers were. Then her mother asked, “When we die, what will you want?”
“I wanted a scotch!” Anne laughs. “My parents threw me such a curveball.”
But Anne — a marriage and family therapist, with a practice in New York City and (until earlier this month) Westport, where she’s lived since 1974 — grabbed a pen. She began writing.
For over an hour, her parents talked. They told her where they wanted to be buried, the name of their accountant, which bank held their safe deposit box.
Anne kept asking: “Are you sure no one’s sick?”
No one was. Her parents were just following the recommendation of friends, to have important discussions before it’s too late.
Ten years later, her mother had a hip replacement. Anne saw her before and after surgery. That evening, she told Anne to go home and get some rest.
At 11 p.m., her mother died.
“I got unglued. That wasn’t supposed to happen,” Anne recalls.
But as the doctor asked questions — where she wanted the body moved, did she prefer burial or cremation, etc. — Anne knew every answer.
“I understood exactly what my mother wanted. I knew which rabbi to call. I knew it all,” she says.
Her mother had thought of something else too.
At the hospital before surgery, she had changed “next of kin” on the notification form, from her husband to her daughter.
“That’s why I got the call that night, instead of my 80-year-old, hard-of-hearing father,” Anne says.
About six years ago, Anne heard Ellen Goodman on NPR. The Pulitzer Prize winning columnist said that when her mother was dying, no one talked about it. When she passed away, no one knew what to do.
She also realized that not everyone received such a gift.
As a family therapist, she knew what to do.
Anne was already leading group workshops at the Senior Center. She wove “how to talk about taboos” into her sessions. The topic was well received.
A year later she presented an outline to faculty counselors in the department of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Hospital, where she teaches. They listened raptly.
A colleague told her, “This is so important and valuable. We need the information out there. And you’re a writer!”
She sure is. Many years ago, she was a journalist with the Westport News and Fairfield Citizen. She also wrote “Marrying Well: The Clinician’s Guide to Premarital Counseling.”
So Anne has just published “Your End of Life Matters.”
“Ninety percent of Americans say it’s important to discuss end-of-life care,” Anne says. “But only 30% do it.”
“Your End of Life Matters” covers everything from a living will and burial arrangements to sharing computer passwords, and what happens if you’re a small business owner and get sick.
Anne’s title has double meaning, of course. It’s about what to do at the end of life — but it also emphasizes the importance of how to prepare.
The book is filled with stories of people who did all this right — and wrong. (“If you’re promised a piece of art, get it in writing!” the author warns.)
She also offers a way to begin the conversation. “Start by saying, ‘I’m healthy. I just want to have this conversation now — because I am healthy!'”
“Death is a part of everyone’s life,” Anne emphasizes. “So have the conversation. Then get on with the fun of living.”
And, she notes, “you live better if you communicate.”
The book is aimed at people 45 and older. But, she adds, “it’s really for everyone. Things happen unexpectedly. People can die right after they have a child.”
Everyone dies. But when they do, not everyone has already given the gift that Anne Ziff’s parents did.
Thanks to her book, many more will have the chance to do so.
And the words to talk about it.