How can we prepare for the death of our founder or donor?

This guest post from Suzanne Hammer, founder of Hammer and Associates, discusses important lessons she and her family learned after the passing of her father.

This past January, my dad’s health went downhill.

On our annual father/daughter trip to Aruba, we stepped off the plane into the warm tropical air, and he asked me to take him to the hospital. He had fluid on the lung that had started ‘squeezing’ his heart and making breathing difficult. Instead of sipping margaritas on Aruba’s white sand beaches that week, I drove back and forth to the Dr. Horatio E. Oduber Hospital delivering reduced salt meals from his favorite restaurants and telling really bad jokes to keep the atmosphere light while his body shed kilos of accumulated fluid.

While dad (and I) recovered from that experience, his 83-year-old body, which had battled diabetes for 30 years, did not.

morris-the-catIn the months that followed, he went through a series of ups and downs with his health. Things would get grim, and then he would bounce back—so much so, that my siblings and I nicknamed him “Morris the Cat”—referring to the 80s mascot for 9Lives cat food. Dad certainly seemed to be burning through his nine lives!

He passed on July 11th of this year.

Losing a parent is hard enough, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how it intensified the family dynamics between my siblings and me.

I come from a blended family with two older brothers and two younger stepsisters, and to be honest, we’ve never been The Brady Bunch. My parents divorced long before my mother passed, just after my 21st birthday, and my father’s second wife passed in 2011. My father’s care was up to the five of us; he was the only parent we had left.

I share this story not for pity or condolences, but to open dialogue about something that all families face at one time or another—particularly families of wealth. A death in the family—particularly a patriarch or matriarch—can shift the power and roles and responsibilities among those that are living. It can bring things to the surface (good, bad and ugly), and can temporarily cause more rifts than connectedness.

suzanne-and-fatherIn the midst of a loved one dying, there are many decisions to be made. There’s paperwork and Power of Attorneys and property. There’s money. There’s final wishes and figuring out what do with all the “stuff.” In my experience, the stress of it all sometimes divided us more than it brought us together. We all wanted the best for our dad, and we each had strong opinions on what “the best” meant to us.

Looking back now, I see we had the benefit of “Morris” living out his nine lives. We had an opportunity to work through some of our less-helpful dynamics and establish methods of decisionmaking that focused on our dad’s health versus our own personal agendas (well, most of the time!).

The death of a family member—especially a foundation leader—is likely the largest change a family will undergo. Suddenly, or not so suddenly, family members must grapple with grief and loss, and also an onslaught of financial, legal, and organizational issues.

How can you plan ahead—as a family, or as a family enterprise (business, foundation, family office)? And how can you make sure family dynamics don’t unglue all the good that exists already? Here’s what I wish I had known back then:

  1. Ask your loved one to communicate his or her intent for the family or the foundation—be it through a letter, a video, a recorded interview, or talks with other board or family members. Some foundations have their donor write a Letter of Donor Intent, which can be incredibly useful for the current and future board. It can also remind family members what binds them together.
  1. If the “writing is on the wall” when it comes to life expectancy, consider a detailed conversation about life-support decisions—ideally with the loved one who is dying. We learned that my dad’s medical Power of Attorney was broad. One of his doctors, with us in attendance, asked my dad his specific wishes, and under what circumstances he wanted us to prolong his life. It was invaluable hearing what Dad wanted versus one of us interpreting what we thought he wanted. It helped us avoid a lot of arguments and misunderstandings.
  1. Understand that everyone plays a “role” in the family. For example, in my family, my role is supportive. One of my older brothers and younger step-sister took on the role of settling my dad’s estate because they lived closest to my dad and those were his wishes. Knowing this in advance helped us manage the process. What’s your role, and how did it evolve? How effective is your role in the grand scheme of family dynamics? How will your role change once your loved one is no longer living?
  1. Listen. Wait. Listen again. You may not like what a family member is saying, and you don’t have to. However, it will help if you listen to them—and even when you think you know what they mean, listen again. Ask them questions to clarify in a gentle, non-confrontational way (“I think I hear you saying XYZ; do I have that right?”). This can help you better understand their motives—what need they are trying to fulfill. It can open avenues for compromise and help you learn to communicate with your family members (regardless of what you think of them!).
  1. Allow time for mourning. Whether the death is sudden or expected, allow yourself and others time to mourn. Know that everyone deals with death and loss in their own personal way, and a family member won’t handle it in the same way you will. There’s no right or wrong. Give everyone some space and time before diving into the financial and organizational details. Allow time for emotions to arise, and forgive yourself and others for not being perfect.
  1. Break long-term changes into small chunks. With so much to do in dealing with death, it can easily feel overwhelming. Break up all the practical long-term duties into immediate next best steps. What are the top two or three things the family or board can focus on today to take care of what needs to be done tomorrow? Who’s in charge of what? How can you all work together and share ownership in a way that feels safe and non-threatening?

To be sure, the death of a loved one isn’t easy. Change can create an imbalance and anxiety within you and your relationships with others. In the best of situations—the family recalibrates, the family enterprise evolves, and family relationships remain in tact or grow stronger. As the saying goes, it takes time.

Have you been through this situation? What helped you navigate family dynamics in the wake of a loved one dying? We want to learn from your experience, too. Send me a comment in the box below, or email me at