Caryn Sullivan: Say goodbye to the tie

I was completely unprepared to become a widow. I became obstinate about the fact that (like it or not) everyone is born with an expiration date.

Friday Food for Thought
Caryn Sullivan

Last month I attended a gathering billed as “Say goodbye to the tie.” It was a night for staff, volunteers, and friends to mark the end of my necktie-loving husband’s 15-year tenure as CEO of Minnesota Realtors. Listening to the speakers, I was filled with pride — and a reminder that too often we wait until funerals to tell people they matter, or they’ve made a difference in our lives. We often don’t take a moment to say goodbye to the metaphoric tie.

I met Chris Galler seven years ago. We officially connected on Facebook, but really connected over coffee at Caribou on a crisp April morning. We shared a bond that quickly propelled us beyond the usual get-to-know-you chit chat. We’d both lost our spouses, me quite suddenly in 2009 and he with a long goodbye which ended in 2016.

We’d both spent years as caregivers — me for my two kids with high needs and he for his wife who’d suffered a stroke before succumbing to cancer years later. When he expressed genuine interest in learning about my son with autism, my heart skipped a beat. Could he really be that amazing?

He could.

We did our best to make up for lost time, traveling to bucket-list destinations, getting to know each other’s friends and families before we officially blended them.

Then COVID hit. Daily death counts in the media reminded us of our mortality. The loss of life, livelihoods, and even relationships was horrific. The loss of control of our lives was unsettling, to say the least.

I was reminded of how important it is to be planful about how we live and how we die.

Years earlier, I was completely unprepared to become a widow. But I was quick to spot the lessons, starting with a recognition that the worst time to make big decisions is when you’re in the throes of a sleep-deprived crisis.

When I emerged from the fog, I set about getting my affairs in order so my family wouldn’t have to debate whether I wanted to be buried or cremated. With the help of trusted professionals, I got the legal documents in order. I procured insurance, put my passwords in a file, updated guardianship arrangements for my son, and more.

Like an obnoxious convert, I became a bit obstinate about the fact that (like it or not) everyone is born with an expiration date. As a writer and speaker, I became an advocate for facing life head on.

As the highspeed train of life slows down before my eyes, I’m mindful of how it can veer off the track. Friends and family are dealing with cancer, dementia, mental health issues, degenerative diseases, mysterious COVID-related issues, and more. Peers are having knees and hips replaced, undergoing rotator cuff surgery.

Noting Chris’ retirement, a mutual friend sent a copy of Pat Miles Zimmerman’s new book, “Before All is Said and Done.” It was a timely gift, for transitions offer a perfect occasion to reflect on where we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going, and how we plan to get there.

Pat made her mark in Minnesota as a TV journalist. Years later, as a new widow, she’s writing her way through her grief, much as I did; finding purpose in the pain, as I did.

Filled with personal stories and information from widows, therapists, lawyers, death doulas, and financial planners, Pat’s book is a valuable tool for navigating some of the most difficult times and tasks we’ll encounter in life.

Pat offers myriad examples of how people grapple with grief, as well as resources for doing so. For anyone who’s lost a loved one or caring for a loved one, it’s rich with insight and suggestions.

She also reminds readers of the importance of planning. Regardless of the size or composition of one’s family or estate, planning gives us a degree of control over how we live and die. Making assumptions about the state of one’s affairs or how a business will take care of a surviving spouse can backfire, as Pat learned.

Through accounts of families being transformed when estate plans were neglected or ineffective, she illustrates how people can get very funny about money. Complicated families especially require thoughtful planning. Stepfamilies, for example, are fertile territory for battles over inheritances.

Designating guardians for our kids is hard. It forces us to contemplate our own deaths and to ask someone to step in if the unimaginable occurs. But failing to make plans for children, particularly those with special needs, is no plan. Better to ask someone than to leave it up to others to decide.

Making decisions can be paralyzing if we think we must do it perfectly. An imperfect plan is better than no plan. An imperfect decision is better than no decision. Fortunately, plans can be updated as needed.

The best way to convey one’s intent clearly and unequivocally is by composing an intention letter, Pat suggests. Putting the intent and specifics of an estate plan in writing — why we’re doing what we’re doing and how it’s intended to work — can fend off battles over what surviving family members assumed would or would not occur.

Talking about death doesn’t summon it earlier than it would otherwise arrive. The tough conversations can help one to make peace with an undesirable reality. Crafting an estate plan is a labor of love well worth the effort. Taking a moment to tell people they matter — regardless of whether they favor neckties — is, too.


Caryn Sullivan
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A retired attorney and author of the award-winning memoir, "Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page," Caryn Sullivan has inspired readers with her thoughtful commentary for the past two decades. To learn more about Caryn’s work or to connect, visit