I got one of those voice messages last month that you never forgot. You probably know the kind, it’s the inflection of the messenger that when you listen to the recording, you think to yourself that something terrible has happened and the person leaving you the message desperately needs to talk to you in person…

So, this is the story of my lovely stepmother Debbie. My dad and she were married when I was a teenager after my parents had divorced. Not even two years into their marriage my father had a massive heart attack and died. He was 42, Debbie was 31 and I was 19. I can tell you, even as a college freshman, I knew this woman had a very deep love for my father.

My dad had recently relocated out west due to work and when he died, Debbie stayed across the country and never looked back on any of her decisions about my dad. We kept in touch over the decades mostly by annual phone calls. A few times I had the pleasure of seeing her if I was on vacation or had business in her area.

By the way, thirteen years after my dad died, she met a man named Mike and they had been living together for over twenty years when Mike left me that 5:23 amvoice message to call him back. When I did so, he explained that Debbie died that night. She had recently been diagnosed with advanced cancer and after a frenetic month of treatments she ended up passing due to complications. I hadn’t a clue. The last time I spoke to her everything was fine. (Photo to the right – Jean Marie with Debbie, 2014)

As my conversation continued with Mike he told me that he found “her papers.” She had written down that she wanted to be buried with my dad. He asked me, “Jean Marie, did you know that Debbie and your dad have a cemetery plot together?” At that point, I was even more speechless. I either never knew this or I had forgotten since it was 33 years ago when my dad was buried in Paramus, NJ. A swarm of sympathy and empathy arose in my heart for Mike. It turns out that Debbie had not updated her will since the 80’s. Mike and Debbie had an upcoming appointment with an attorney but she didn’t make it.

Not only had he lost his love but now everything she owned was going to people she designated decades ago that she was no longer communicating with. I’m pretty certain she would have dramatically changed her will had she made it to the lawyer’s office.

Additionally, adding to grief and stress, I’m sure it was an awful experience for Mike to have to fly her body back here to an unfamiliar airport, funeral home and cemetery in order to bury her here with her former husband, my father. And it was quite emotional and painful for me to see my dad’s grave reopened.

Of course, all these “after death” questions could have been prevented if she had thought, talked, written and communicated her last wishes. When I asked Mike why she hadn’t done so, he said she never thought about it. She had always been healthy, she never expected to die at 63. It was just something they never got around to.

I tell you this personal story from a stepdaughter and an organizer’s perspective so your loved ones don’t make this all too common mistake. As a rule of thumb, you should read your will every five years and see if you want to make any changes. If you do, don’t procrastinate.