As a hospice chaplain, I’m privileged to encounter people from all walks of life with varying faith backgrounds. You might think, like I once did, that people who are very near death behave at their very worst. Nothing could be more false.
Death is the Great Equalizer. Each of us must die, but my experience as a hospice chaplain reveals the key difference in whether or not we die a “good” death.
When I insist that I’m here to help patients “die a good death,” I get a lot of strange looks, or people step back a bit, as if I’m crazy, or have a contagious disease.
What I mean by “dying a good death” is this: we must be as well prepared for death, in life, as we are well prepared to live our lives. We must discuss our preferences and wishes with trusted loved ones, write them down, then secure the necessary legal documents and signatures to ensure that those wishes and instructions can be fulfilled.
Our society denies death. Everywhere we look, we’re challenged to beat aging, extend our lives with some new fad diet, gadget, trend or philosophy. We lock our elderly and the infirm away where we can’t see them, so we don’t have to witness the body’s natural processes of aging and dying. And as a result, we have forgotten how to “die well.”
We have no idea when or how our lives will end. I see a great deal of sadness, conflict, anger and frustration when a person who dies has not made their last wishes or funeral preferences known. It can be a difficult burden for survivors to make end-of-life decisions on behalf of another person. Conversely, it’s a deep comfort to follow the wishes of the departed person because they took the time to plan and write them down.
My advice to you, and to your loved ones is simple:
1) Reconcile with loved ones. The pain of separation is, in my opinion and experience, the greatest and deepest wound we can inflict on one another. Forget the past, make a new start, forgive those who’ve hurt you, and recognize you’ve probably hurt them, so forgive yourself. Tell the people you love that how much you value, cherish and love them. Write them a letter if that’s easier, but forgive, forget and re-connect. Life’s too short to spend it in anger and isolation.
2) Name an Executor. Identify one or two in your life’s sphere whom you trust implicitly, and name them as Executor(s) with their permission. Write this down, sign and date it, and obtain the executor’s signature also. Store in a safe deposit box, and give a copy of the key to your executor, along with a copy of this document.
3) Make Your End-of-Life Decisions. Write down your end-of-life preferences on a piece of paper, sign it and date it. Better yet, find a trusted attorney and draw up a Will, Power of Attorney and Power of Healthcare Attorney. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on these documents, but you do need them. You should keep the documents in a safe deposit box, and alert your executor(s) where they may be found if you die. Discuss your preferences with someone close to you who will respect and carry out your wishes, and this includes whether or not you’d wish to be placed on life support. If you prefer not to be resuscitated, or “worked on” when your heart stops beating, sign a Do Not Resuscitate order (DNR) and tell your family/friends where they can find it. If you become critically ill, xerox the DNR and keep it readily available, in case an ambulance is called to your home, or in case you are hospitalized. Medical and emergency professionals are usually required by law to resuscitate you unless a signed DNR is present. Keep xerox copies of your legal documents at home, in case of an emergency.
4) Burial, Cremation, or Donation? Spend an hour reflecting about whether you’d prefer burial, cremation or donation of your body when you die. Your choices should be specified in the documents listed above, whether they are handwritten, typed or prepared by an attorney. If you’re an organ donor, make sure everyone close to you is aware of this, and if you are on home health or hospice care, alert these professionals as well.
5) Plan Your Funeral. Think about and write down the details for your funeral or memorial service: will the setting be a church, funeral home, a park, etc.? Will there be music, and if so, name the selections you wish to be played. Decide who will conduct the service, and select several readings to be read. These might include favorite poems, Scripture, humor, etc. Will there be flowers, or donations to a charity/organization in lieu of flowers? Determine a burial site, or if you opt to be cremated, name the site where you’d like your ashes to be cast. Make sure to specify in your Will what funds are to be used for your funeral/memorial, as well as any celebrations afterward, and who is to be “in charge.”
6) Give Away Your Stuff. Make a list of the people in your life who mean the most to you, and write down the property or personal belongings you’d like each to receive after your death. Some terminally ill people give away their most precious possessions before they die, as a meaningful way to create a new memory attached to the possession. Even the simplest trinket can become a treasured legacy of the person who has crossed over.
7) Don’t avoid “death talk.” Death isn’t contagious, and talking about death isn’t disrespectful, either. Everyone dies, and every person has a choice about how “good” his/her death can be, as far as we can control it. Will your death be chaotic, full of conflict and resentment? Or will your death be a “good death” that truly celebrates your unique personality, your preferences and the span of your life?
This new year spend a few moments planning for your “good” death. There are many online tools to assist you in this process, from creating a simple will to how to plan your own funeral. Dying a “good” death can be one of the best gifts you give to your loved ones, because they will know, and can carry out, your wishes.
Peace to all here.