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This article by Michele Alperin was prepared for the January 11, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Gaining the Courage to Ask
Susan Piver describes herself as independent-minded: "I haven’t wanted
to buy into any agenda – whether presented by school, religion, or
culture – without first examining it myself and really understanding
Driven to ask questions, you might say. Two years ago, when her family
was planning her father’s 80th birthday party, Piver started asking
herself questions. "You can’t plan something like that without
wondering how many more you will spend together," she says. "I was so
scared and upset when I thought about losing my parents; I couldn’t
think about it for more than one second."
She started worrying that if one of her parents – now 75 and 82 and
healthy – became sick, she might start to distance herself because
illness and impending death would be so difficult to deal with
emotionally. "I wanted to keep getting closer till the end of our
lives," she says. "I didn’t want my own fear and discomfort to get in
Piver, who was raised in Bethesda, Maryland, the daughter of a
physician and a homemaker, has used a "100 questions" formula
successfully in two earlier books, one on weathering the newlywed
period and another on creating an authentic life. It occurred to her
that the same format could work in this situation.
Piver, who lives in Boston, will give a talk about her new book, "The
Hard Questions for Adult Children and Their Aging Parents: Facing the
Future Together," on Friday, January 13, at RWJ Hamilton’s Center for
Health & Wellness in Hamilton.
To begin research for the book she wrote down 40 to 50 questions to
which she wanted answers from her parents, for example: Do you have a
will? Are there any family traditions you’d like us to continue after
you’re gone? She found research relatively easy. One approach was to
talk with friends whose parents were sick and dying and ask: What do
you wish you had known when your parents were healthy?
The strangest things, she says in a phone interview, can turn up
during the questioning process: For example, say the parents have an
art collection – then where are the authentication documents? Who knew
that such things existed?
"In the chaos and pain of grief, you don’t want to think about these
things," says Piver. "There’s so much emotion around family issues,
siblings, the remaining parent, that it’s easy to transpose the pain
onto the stuff." If adult children and parents manage to sort out in
advance, for example, who gets what, Piver thinks it will be easier
for family members to grieve appropriately and not to say things like:
"I need to have this thing to remember my relationship with mom or
else I’m going to be devastated."
Asking questions has been a subtheme throughout Piver’s life. When her
then-boyfriend, now-husband Duncan Browne, popped the question, for
example, she panicked, asking herself, "How does one enter into
marriage knowing that almost half of all couples these days get
She was almost 40, had never been married, and loved her boyfriend.
"But I was under no illusion that that was enough to make the
relationship work," she says. "I had an epiphany – just because you
love someone, it doesn’t mean you will love your life together."
Worrying about the fragility of human relationships, she had lots of
questions she wanted answers to before she committed herself: Where do
you want to live? (Suppose he wants to live somewhere I hate? she
worried.) How do you feel about money? (What if I wish we had 10 times
more money than he wishes for? Will we keep our money together?) How
much time should be devoted to family?
Piver wrote down the things she had been wondering about, and the two
of them talked. One by one, she and Duncan, who is COO of Newbury
Comics, a chain of music stores in New England, answered questions
that focused on the key areas of married life – home, money, work,
sex, community and friends, family, and spirituality. In exploring
each area of uncertainty, Piver learned something about her
husband-to-be, herself, and their relationship. "We were alternately
delighted, appalled, infuriated, and mystified by each other’s
responses," she remembers. "It was an intense and wonderful
A friend suggested to her that the questions she and Duncan had
discussed would make a good book. And indeed those same questions they
asked of each other became the basis for "The Hard Questions: 100
Essential Questions to Ask the One You Love," (Tarcher, 2000), which
remained on the New York Times bestsellers’ list for nine straight
weeks and landed Piver on Oprah. "It was awesome and scary," she says
of appearing on the show, "but the second Oprah started talking, I
started calming down, because she was so genuine." Piver felt Oprah
was sincere about wanting to help newlyweds work out their differences
early on and that colored Piver’s whole experience on the show. "It
was great because Oprah has got her priorities in right place."
Her second book, "The Hard Questions for an Authentic Life," came out
in January, 2004. It challenges readers to independently explore their
deepest beliefs about relationships, friendships, family, work, money,
creativity, and spirituality.
Piver’s habit of questioning and independent thinking has also
influenced her own religious path. Although she was raised as and
still considers herself a Jew, speaks Hebrew, and lived in Israel for
three years, her practice is Buddhist. About 12 years ago, when she
was reading "The Heart of the Buddha," by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche,
she came to a line that really spoke to her: "Don’t believe what I am
saying. Take it into your own mind and consider it and test it. What
is useful to you, keep, and what isn’t, discard. Use your own mind and
personal experience to determine the course of your life. They are the
only things that are trustworthy."
It was a moment of self-recognition: "I must be a Buddhist," she
remembers thinking. Then she started studying Buddhism, practicing
meditation, and going on long retreats. Her Buddhist practice gibes
well with the sense of curiosity and hunger for knowledge that has
always been part of her life. "I have a spiritual practice that
encourages me to step away from my comfort zone and gives me ways to
do that intelligently," she observes. "I’m willing to ask the
She has also practiced yoga since 1989. "I’ve gone through phases
where I’ve practiced every day or once a month. In a sense, yoga was
the beginning of a formal spiritual path. It exposed me to a kind of
inner focus I’d been longing for, only didn’t know it. I also learned
to parse my inner experience in a way that really helped when I began
meditating. Holding a pose and exploring what it feels like translates
nicely to holding and exploring emotional states. But then yoga was
originally developed as a preparation and support for meditation, so
it’s no accident that they dovetail so perfectly."
Learning through doing and questioning has been essential to Piver’s
personal development. As an experiential learner, she says, "the
school setting didn’t work for me." As a result, after high school she
did not follow her peers at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, to
college. Instead she moved to Israel for three years. Then, back in
the United States, she "worked in every kind of blue collar job you
can think of except construction and bartender" – waitress, taxi
driver, switchboard operator, and others.
A job at a record company initiated a 10-year career in the music
business, where she eventually connected to the publishing world. She
started creating book packages – collateral materials like CDs,
calendars, and decks of cards – that helped market a book. Book
packaging, she says, is "expensive, detailed, and labor intensive,
something no big publishers do in house."
Through her work in publishing, Piver naturally met agents, one of
whom tutored her on how to write a book proposal, which she did
successfully. In fact, he is still her agent today.
Responses to her third book, she says, have sometimes been unexpected.
She had written the book from the point of view of a "child," assuming
that it was people her own age who wanted to raise the difficult
issues. "It is just as likely to be the reverse," says Piver. Parents
would say to her: "I think about this because I am the aging one, and
I want to share my worries and instructions with my children – because
they don’t want to talk about it!" She also heard from lawyers, who
thought they had covered everything, but hadn’t.
But her most frequent response has been from relieved children, who
tell her: "We’ve been trying to talk about this for years, but
couldn’t get the conversation started. The book was the perfect
What has been most meaningful to Piver is how the book has helped
adult children break down barriers with their parents simply "by
having the conversation." By creating an opportunity to talk about
family history and spiritual beliefs the book, she says, has sometimes
helped "improve relationships that seemed like they couldn’t be
improved." Understanding parents’ needs can provide emotional comfort
later, says Piver, when the child is able, for example, to say a
favorite prayer for an ill parent. "To know we’re doing what they
value – that’s the whole point of this book, doing what our parents
want us to do. We don’t want to have to make it up ourselves during a
Talking to parents in an organized way can also uncover information
that would otherwise be lost, from the names of people in family
photographs, to the meatloaf recipe you’ve always loved. "When we make
something that one of our parents made, we feel a continuing lineage
of family and connection," says Piver.
"You have to prepare for grief," she advises. "If you don’t think
about it beforehand, it is too chaotic and painful when a parent
dies." She advises people to let the painful thoughts in and talk
about them with their parents. She was lucky that her own parents have
been very open to the process.
It all comes down to facing one’s life with courage. "My books have a
point of view," says Piver. "Don’t shy away from your own life, but be
practical at the same time. Whenever the end of my life comes, I want
to know I have really lived and loved the best I could."
Facing the Future Together, Friday, January 13, 7 p.m., Friends’
Health Connection, RWJ Hamilton Center for Health & Wellness, 3100
Quakerbridge Road, Hamilton. Susan Piver, author of "Facing the Future
Together: The Hard Questions for Adult Children and Their Aging
Parents," presents a lecture to stimulate discussions between parents
and children on their feelings about aging and death. Register. $15.
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