Planning for death: a gift for your family

Planning for death: a gift for your family

I ran across a blog post the other day called “Life and Death Planning,” which is an incredible resource. It provides a checklist for the essential paperwork that you need to get in order, if not for yourself then for your loved ones, and it explains why all of us should be planning for death.

The blog was motivated, as so many great ideas are, by loss:

In 2009 my husband was killed in an accident. In the following hours, weeks, and months I was shocked by the number of things we had left disorganized or ignored.

I think many of us recoil at the idea of planning for our death. Certainly many families recoil when a loved one with cancer prepares for their death. It’s an error of magical thinking: if I plan for my death, then I’m more likely to die. And, let’s be honest, it’s hard to think about death.

Most of us have never been brought to the brink of our mortality. Most of us have not been told that no treatments remain and hospice is the next step. I have noticed, however, that when people do face this prognosis, they often turn to doing what they can do to care for their families.

My friend Betsy, who I wrote about here, focused lots of her attention on getting all the bills and insurance matters cleared up and on labeling and organizing all the family photographs so that her husband and daughter would have easy access to them.

Several folks in my support group have spent copious amounts of time organizing paperwork, bills, identification, medical records and so on as well as clearing out “stuff.”

All of them faced resistance from family members about doing these tasks. If you have a small number of days left, why not use your remaining energy doing something you love to do, crossing off entries on that bucket list? Why talk about and plan for death? It’s scary and depressing.

From the perspective of a person with cancer, I believe that these sorts of tasks are about extending the reach of our lives. We will no longer be able to care for our children after death, but we can try to meet some needs by labeling photographs and paying bills.

I don’t know how I would most prefer to die. I can see definite advantages to being smacked down by a bus. Despite cancer’s horrible progression, however, one advantage of leaving the world this way is that you get some time to come to terms with life and death and to say goodbye.

Either way, all of us could benefit from organizing papers and drawing up the legal documents that make it easier for our families after our deaths (and for us while we’re alive). I encourage you to go to this website for advice, forms, and the checklist.

I want to comment only on living wills and on funeral planning, both of which made my mom’s death much easier on my family.

Perhaps because my father was a preacher while I was growing up, my family had plenty of conversations about death. My dad was also a police chaplain, and he spent many hours at hospitals helping families cope with excruciating decisions about end of life choices.

When my mom was in the hospital, where she eventually died from sepsis because of a botched gall bladder surgery, she coded and was put on life support. Patients’ neurological condition and prognosis always seem clear to television doctors. The question is only “unplug” or keep life support. It’s way more complicated, however.

My mom’s doctors—a neurologist, her general practitioner, and a surgeon—offered different interpretations of her prognosis after she had coded. While it seemed very dire, the general practitioner urged us to keep her on life support because he knew of patients who’d “come back” fully functioning from such states.

After a few days, however, we chose to have her removed from life support because she had made it crystal clear to all of us exactly what her wishes were and she had written them down. We had discussed these matters as a family and we had all heard her state clearly and unequivocally that she wanted no extraordinary measures.

In addition to talking about medical issues, we also knew exactly what she wanted done at her funeral. My mom was only 51 when she died, and her death was unexpected, but she had taken part in a church program that asked folks to draw up plans for their own funerals.

She had written down that she wanted to be buried in a pine box, that she did not want to be embalmed, that she wanted her burial to be at Glorieta, NM, that she wanted particular songs sung and Bible verses read at the funeral. I remember that she was very explicit (all caps and exclamation points) that she didn’t want to be “made up” for a public viewing.

I shudder to think what we would have done without these instructions because my grandmother, father, brother and I all had different desires for the funeral and some were in conflict. My father would have wanted a cremation and my grandmother a viewing, make-up and elaborate coffin, for instance.

Our family, like many, was not at its best during my mom’s death. We were at odds on many, many things. One aunt showed up at my parent’s house before the funeral and started going through my mom’s china. One of my grandmother’s friends chastised me for not having a public viewing. It wasn’t pretty.

It took us more than a year to agree about what her headstone should have on it. My mom always said that she didn’t want it to say, “She was a good cook.” So, that sentence wasn’t in the offing, but hundreds of others were.

About the two most important things, though, there was no debate. My mom had told us in some detail about how she wanted to die and about how she wanted to be buried. It was an amazing gift that I will always remember. Though I agree with the decision about no extraordinary measures, I know now that I could never have made it on my own.

Here’s the problem. I haven’t done any of these wise things, and I know I need to do them because I want my daughter, an only child, to have these matters sorted. So, before you here and now, I am setting a goal for 2014. I aim to get the paperwork done. All of it that’s listed on Get Your Shit Together!

Why don’t you join me? It’ll be easier if we promise each other. Meanwhile, go up to the top and “like” this post and then join us on Facebook.

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