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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

the way."

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

important questions."

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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