Dr. Williams shared her story in February of 2024.

Before she died at the age of 99, my mother left a handwritten note to her nine children in her Bible. I assume she thought, “They’re going to come to my Bible one of these days.” And sure enough, when we were preparing for Mother’s celebration of life, one of my sisters — we call her “Miss Church Lady” — picked up the Bible and found what my mother had written. 

“Dear Children,” the note began. It detailed my mother’s wishes for her memorial service and that she had put away sufficient funds for the flowers, the church, everything. She had had a good life, she wrote, and she wanted us to always picture her as she was when she was living, full of love. It was so comforting. 

We were able to go into my mother’s celebration confident that we had honored her wishes, not just for the celebration service, but also for her care before she passed. When it came to her end-of-life healthcare, my mother had never been afraid to discuss her wishes. We knew she wanted to be taken care of at home and didn’t want to go into a healthcare facility. And although she hadn’t created any formal documents, we were very happy that she had actually prepared for her homegoing. 

Almost everything I know, I learned from her. When I was about 11 years old, we lived way, way out in the Louisiana country, and we didn’t have a bus to take us to school, which was miles away. My mother taught us to go around to our neighbors’ houses to get petitions signed — first for a gravel road, then, once we did that, for a bus. I believe most of us became activists because of my mother.

Her example in planning for the end of life has likewise proven to be another gift she passed down to me. I’ve helped many families and friends with end-of-life planning, including Dick Gregory and Cicely Tyson. 

When I talk to Black people about preparing for the end of life, I say, “Talking about dying doesn’t kill you.” I tell my mother’s story, but I also add that it’s important to share your wishes in writing as well as conversation. While you’re well and thinking straight, these are decisions you need to make and make known to the person you want to handle them for you. And once that’s done, you have a sense of relief that now you know what’s going to happen as you make your transition. As Mr. Gregory used to say, we should not be afraid of anything, because fear and God do not occupy the same space. 

I recently assisted a woman who had cancer who had never thought about putting together any documentation of her health choices. But she was able to tell me what they were and who she wanted to make decisions for her. People like her can go away from these conversations feeling that they have done something that will keep their families together rather than fighting over decisions that have to be made. 

As for myself, I have written in my advance directive who I want to make decisions for me if I’m incapacitated in some way, and I’ve spoken with those two people about it, and they’ve agreed. I trust them, largely because of the way they’ve treated me while I’m on this earth. That’s how I know I’ve appointed the right people. 

I tell parents of adult children that sometimes their children aren’t able to make those kinds of decisions in the moment. They just break down. That’s why it’s so important to identify the person you trust to handle things. It’s really a gift to your entire family to do that. 

I often think of the advice of my dear friend. Dick Gregory could make people laugh at funerals with his quips. “Do not take life too seriously,” he said. “You’ll never get out of it alive.” So many of us live in denial of that last part. It was great wisdom.