Of the countless challenges that have faced kings and queens, none is greater than succession, the question of who will be the next monarch. It is the first, and often lasting, problem any leader faces. Among the more popular figures burdened by this quandary was Henry VIII, the Tudor king of England. Famous for marrying often, and, yes, beheading a wife or two, his legacy was owed largely to the attempt to father a male heir. England and the world bore witness to his failure. He was famously succeeded by his daughter, the illustrious Elizabeth the First.
Long before Henry, the Roman emperors understood the same problem all too well. Keeping a single heir supplied, educated, trained and healthy was a task they realized could not be left to a lone monarch. In the latter years of the empire, one sitting emperor was replaced by a dual-headed system, which called for two co-emperors to rule specifically so that when one died, the other stood ready and experienced to succeed. One of its last great leaders, Diocletian, subsequently instituted the tetrarchy, a four-head model, to further assure and ensure the continuation of mighty Roma. Unfortunately, within a few years of the establishment of the tetrarchy, the great empire fell. This specific line of succession could not be guaranteed even if three protégés stood by waiting and ready for the call of duty.
This meander into early Western history was inspired by a call I received from a close friend in New York who told me that his mother died over the weekend after a devastating bout with pancreatic cancer. After he talked enough about her decline, I could not resist asking my friend how the relationship with his siblings had changed.
This is an odd, random thing to bring up, I know, so allow me to come clean. From the very moment I heard him say the words, “my mom died,” a scenario played in my head. It was a scene of siblings disagreeing angrily and drifting apart around a deathbed. It was my own experience when my mother died just a couple of years ago, so I guess my way of sympathizing was mixed with seeking a bit of commiseration about the outright war that followed the death of my family’s maga'haga.
Sadly, my friend finds himself in conflict with his siblings in their time of mourning because his mother did not clarify the specific terms of the division of her estate. Quite honestly, this story has played out numerous times in my life with other friends and relatives. It is an unsettling and familiar narrative.
In Guam and other places, I am sure, we cling to the loose idea that the oldest sibling takes the lead in elder care; that the child who takes primary care of the dying parent is the chief beneficiary of the estate; or that assets are divided according to mostly verbal family decrees. But this never quite happens, does it? We find it distasteful and disrespectful to talk about assets of a dying elder, never mind encouraging the sick elder to actually make these decisions. Even after the death, it is impolite to question how spoils are divided. So we go from blissfully ignorant of it, to suspicious and angry in an instant.
The death of an elder is a prime event for heirs to grow apart if the succession is not made actionable. As my friend and I can attest – as can most of you who read this – it is an issue that is not reserved for royalty; it is a stark reality for the most normal families. If there is not a workable plan in place for moving forward after the patriarch or matriarch dies, then families, like empires, can easily crumble.
As it happens, my wife and I do not have children, but this is not to say that there will be no questions – no potential for conflict – over whatever material legacy we may leave behind. But we have enough siblings and their families to make a mess of things if they have to figure things out of themselves. If you have kids, you should definitely have a good estate plan and will.
In the end, mourning can be more meaningful and beautiful. We should leave the earth with mostly good memories instead of unanswered questions that possibly have bitter answers.
Dan Ho, a native of Agat, is a writer and teacher and holds a Ph.D. in indigenous studies. Follow his garden adventures on Instagram @HoandGarden.