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.