At this point, for better or worse, most of us have adapted to the strangeness of being cut off from each other somewhat abruptly last month. I had a strange experience at the beginning of April when I turned the page on my calendar, got out my correction tape, and proceeded to eliminate the vast majority of commitments, obligations, and social opportunities. I can't remember ever having such a blank month. And while I have waves of sadness about the loss of my face-to-face community, I'm also grateful for the opportunity to slow down.
For one thing it's been one of the longest, loveliest Springs I can remember—blooms go on forever. We've had time in our garden to weed and plant and then just sit and enjoy how beautiful it is. I got some sourdough starter from a friend and learned how to make amazing crusty loaves of bread. I took a walk in the woods and saw a fairy slipper orchid. The dog is getting multiple, lengthy outings each day each day. I'm savoring the impromptu conversations with friends and neighbors who are also out walking, sitting on their porches, or working in their yards. Everyone seems hungry for some connection, and simple exchanges tend to have more depth to them.
As we adjust to the new normal, my calendar is beginning to fill in again. There are phone consultations with clients and Zoom meetings and webinars and virtual birthday parties. I feel like I'm being more careful about what I commit to and what I add to the calendar, though. What initially seemed like a hardship has turned into an opportunity. I hope everyone is able to find a little comfort in the slowness of this unprecedented time.
"At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can." - Frida Kahlo
Every year around this time I see my few remaining tulips come up and I berate myself for not having ordered and planted more in the fall. We've had a problem with squirrels digging up the tulips the past few years, so I keep thinking I'll address that before ordering more bulbs.
And then suddenly it's Spring again.
I've lived in this house and watched this garden come to life for twenty-two years. It's pretty easy to say "maybe next year" I'll plant those bulbs, because there's always been a next year. It's true that the toddler who was just out smelling the tulips actually graduated from college almost two years ago, but still, Spring keeps coming. And every year I look ahead to NEXT year's yard, with less chaos and more tulips.
As I've gotten older, however, I've begun to recognize the folly in always looking ahead. In the past year I've been witness to two sudden deaths, an Alzheimer's diagnosis, a stroke, and a fast-moving brain cancer that went from initial seizure to death in exactly one month, just in my immediate circle of acquaintances. There will never be another Spring exactly like this one for any of these friends, not will there be for any of us, really.
Instead of being overwhelmed with sadness about that, I sat out in my yard the other day, with the last few remaining tulips emerging and the weeds coming on strong, and I noticed something. In their haste to steal my tulips, the squirrels must have dropped a crocus bulb. There, in a spot I didn't plant, blooms a beautiful little clump of purple crocus. It's quite lovely.
This little sign of Spring is reminding me to appreciate the beauty, even in unplanned forms, that is right in front of me. I still plan on planting more tulips next fall, but for now I'm going to enjoy the Spring that's here, and not assume I have endless more.
I came across a music video that slayed me a few weeks ago - Monsters by James Blunt. Blunt's father is dying of chronic kidney disease, and in the song he very emotionally says goodbye to him.
The day I saw the video happened to be, coincidentally, the 10th anniversary of my dad's death. My dad and I did not have an easy relationship, but his dying of pancreatic cancer over a five-month period (2,000 miles away) provided a unique opportunity to address our issues. His impending death forced me to evaluate who he had been in my life, and gave me the chance to choose what I would remember. I'm so grateful for the challenge that time provided... I had to say goodbye with complete finality each time we parted, and that boiled our relationship down to a pretty pure essence at some point. I think that's why James Blunt's verse, "I'm not your son, you're not my father / We're just two grown men saying goodbye," spoke to me.
Ultimately, I think about how meaningful those goodbyes are when you can really face your own fears surrounding death and acknowledge that you will likely never see someone again. I have had a handful of those truly meaningful goodbyes. I have also had the ones where no one in the room wants to admit that death is imminent, and I'm always sorry I didn't tell the person what they meant to me, or that I was glad to have known them.
Our interactions with each other are finite and precious. Don't bank on tomorrow. And always err on the side of being real and telling someone what they mean to you.
I think about death and dying a lot. Not in a morbid way, but because I really believe we can be happier and die better if we're willing to think about it from time to time, and I love to have that conversation with people. That said, while reflecting on the past year, I thought about how many tragic losses we experienced in our community in 2019.
Unexpected or untimely deaths are different... they leave people with unanswered questions and unresolved grief. We experienced a very close, sudden loss in our lives this year. I was grateful for the fact that we had a good visit the day before and that we'd said we loved each other. My New Year's wish for us all is that we remember to say good bye with intention when we leave each other. That we are conscious of beautiful moments, however small they may be. That we hold our loved ones close and appreciate the time we have together. And mostly, that we not let fear of death stop us from living!
"Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire." — Edith Sitwell
While you're gathered with family and friends during these next few weeks, consider letting your end-of-life wishes be known. Having a conversation about what's most important to you before a crisis arises is truly a gift...
Wishing you all a peaceful and purposeful holiday season, filled with conversation and connection! Need a little help getting the conversation started? Consider ordering a copy of Hello, a board game designed to get people talking about end-of-life issues in a fun and meaningful way.
Today is Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. According to Wikipedia, "the multi-day holiday involves family and friends gathering to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and helping support their spiritual journey. In Mexican culture, death is viewed as a natural part of the human cycle. Mexicans view it not as a day of sadness but as a day of celebration because their loved ones awake and celebrate with them." I like the idea of the veil between life and death being a little thinner for a day, and taking a moment to remember and celebrate all the people in lives who are no longer with us.
The holiday season is well underway, and many of us will be visiting with family and close friends in the coming days. While you have your loved ones gathered near, why not take advantage of the time get everyone on the same page about your end-of-life desires?
It doesn’t have to be a depressing conversation! In fact, the more matter-of-fact it is, the better. You can start out by just saying, “Hey, while I’ve got you here, I wanted to let you know what I’ve got in place if something happens to me.” It’s especially important to have this conversation if you’ve named one of your children or a close friend as a Health Care Agent or have given them Durable Power of Attorney (and if you don’t have these in place, that’s another article!).
There are a few things they need to know:
What if the people closest to you don’t want to talk about the possibility of you dying, or are reluctant to let you talk about it? In these cases it can be useful to use a book, a film, or a game as a starting point.
There’s an excellent book called The Conversation, by Dr. Angelo Volandes that illustrates some end-of-life case studies, covers the paperwork one should have in place, and provides lots of good resources, including conversation topics (such as “what is most important to you if your time is limited?”). This book is worth purchasing for the appendices alone.
Several years ago a healthcare professional and a filmmaker joined forces to produce an award-winning documentary that in their words, “intimately explores the American struggle with communication and preparation for end-of-life and seeks to inspire dialogue between patient and doctor, husband and wife, parent and child, minister and parishioner.” Maybe instead of watching White Christmas for the 100th time, you could try screening Consider the Conversation: A Documentary on a Taboo Subject this holiday season!
Finally, if your friends and family enjoy board games, consider purchasing “Hello,” a game designed to be an easy, non-threatening way to start a conversation with your family and friends about what matters most to you. It can be found here. The questions range from the practical (“what would you like to have done with your body when you die?”) to the more thought-provoking (“if you could control only one thing about the place where you spend your last hours of life, what would it be?”).
However you start the conversation, please consider having it this holiday season! Peace of mind is a priceless present.
Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and think about those hard things that you know you should get around to but haven’t quite made time for? You know, reevaluating your homeowners’ policy? Cleaning out the tool shelf in the basement? Having end-of-life paperwork in place?
I can’t help you with the first two (these might also be things that keep ME awake at night), but the last one is actually easier than you probably realize. There are really just four things you need to have in place to make the end of your life easier for everyone involved, whether you should die suddenly, or as is much more common, over a period of time with diminishing capacity.
These four things are a health care directive, power of attorney for health care, durable power of attorney, and a will. The health care directive and power of attorney for health care can be combined into one document, so you’re talking about just needing THREE documents. Here they are:
Health Care Directive & Power of Attorney for Health Care
This is the document that covers what you wish to have happen in the event that you can no longer make medical decisions or have entered a vegetative state. It goes into detail about specific procedures and conditions and allows you to specify different degrees of treatment you may wish to have. The combined document also allows you to assign a Health Care Agent, who is someone you trust to carry out your wishes as you’ve outlined in the Health Care Directive. In my personal experience, having paperwork to prove his Health Care Agent status greatly improved my husband’s access to his mother’s doctors and medical information during a recent emergency. For Washington State residents, the most straightforward, easy-to-use, and universally accepted form can be found here. You should have this notarized.
Durable Power of Attorney
This document can be useful long before you are faced with a crisis. It is used to give another person the ability to make financial decisions and sign legal documents on your behalf. The Durable Power of Attorney can range in scope (you can decide how much responsibility to confer and about what types of things) and is in force until you die. The important distinction between a Power of Attorney and a Durable Power of Attorney is that the former is only in place until you become mentally incapacitated, while the latter stays in force until your death. These can be found online and should also be notarized.
This is the document that specifies how your assets will be distributed upon your death, and assigns the person or people to take care of seeing that your final instructions are carried out. (In addition to managing other details, the executor of your will takes over Power of Attorney duties after your death.) While not required, it is generally recommend that you have a lawyer help with this document. Even people who claim they “don’t own anything” are surprised when they start itemizing their belongings. A will can be as general or specific as you wish; if there are particular items you want to have go to particular people, this is the place to do that. Basically, have a lawyer do this one!
In short, these are pretty straightforward documents. The amount of time it takes to actually create and notarize these documents is far less than the amount of time you’ve already spent lying awake at night worrying about them! Make this the year you get them done.
I’m pretty sure I’m going to stop being invited to social functions soon. People ask what I’m working on these days and inevitably the conversation turns to dying. The thing is, I’m really convinced that our Western end-of-life experience could be better, and I feel passionate about the fact that being able to talk about it is the first step in getting there.
Here are three reasons why I think we need to talk about dying:
It makes it less scary
Thinking about death can be freeing in a way. After doing quite a bit of flying in my life, I inexplicably developed a fear of air travel in my early 30s. It got to the point where I had near-panic attacks boarding a plane, and I even took the train instead of flying. After several years I finally was in the air on the way to Florida, experiencing sweating palms and a racing heart, when I thought, “Okay, what are you afraid of? What’s the WORST thing that can happen?” The answer was, “I could die.” Well, okay then. I started thinking about all the things I’ve done in my life and all the people I’ve loved, and instead of feeling scared or sad, I just felt grateful. Problem solved. To this day, when I fly I spend takeoff and landing reciting a list in my head of people and experiences that have brought me joy.
Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away
When my daughter was little we talked about dying at the dinner table sometimes, generally in the context of a friend or relative who was dying or had died. She would sometimes say, “This makes me too sad,” so I used it as an opportunity to talk about the fact that everyone dies, and that while we can certainly miss the person who died, it doesn’t help to not talk about it. Over the years we had several older friends of the family die peacefully in their sleep, and we talked about how lucky they were to have no pain in the end, what rich wonderful lives they had had, and what we remembered about them. We have also experienced some tragic deaths of younger people, including my daughter’s first grade PE teacher who committed suicide, and we talked about those too. I let her see my grief and let her express her own, but we always tried to end those conversations by thinking about something we loved about the person.
It can help us be more present
Oddly, talking about death makes me more aware of how I spend my time today. I know too many people who died suddenly, and it makes me think about my life in the context of how I’d feel if this was the last time I had on earth. I’d like to say that daily I reach out to people and tell them I love them, or that I work to solve global problems at every opportunity, but that would be a stretch. I do try to be more appreciative of the good friends in my life, of the beautiful place I live, and of how lucky I am to be in a happy relationship. I also just pause occasionally, enjoy the cat on my lap, watch the sunlight filtering through the steam of my tea, and am grateful for the life I have today.