I know it's not an easy subject to discuss. You may even feel uncomfortable reading this blog. I thought twice about writing the blog because I know that many people do not feel comfortable discussing death. I feel strongly that it is a topic that needs to be more openly discussed. By having these discussions, we can make it a little easier for our loved ones during a difficult time.
In 2000, my father-in-law died suddenly from drowning. In 2003, my mother-in-law died in a week from pancreatic cancer. The deaths were sudden. With the death of my mother-in-law, my husband along with his brother and sister had to make funeral and memorial decisions. What kind of casket did she want? What did she want her epitaph on the headstone to be? Did she have a preference for how she wanted her memorial service? My mother-in-law already had her plot picked out, but there were still decisions to be made.
I decided that I wanted to ask my family ahead of time about their preferences if they died before me so that I didn't have to worry about making decisions during an emotional time. I am attaching a questionnaire that I created and had my family fill out. Even if you have a will (which is great!), these topics are not typically covered in it. The questionnaire is broken up into three parts: Documents, Burial or Cremation, and Memorial.
In the Document section, it covers questions about whether you have a will and Health Directive. It asks about life insurance policies and bank accounts. Have you made arrangements for your pet? In the Burial section, it asks if you want to be an organ donor and whether you want to be cremated or buried. If buried, do you want an open or closed casket? Do you have a certain outfit you want to be buried in? If cremated, where do you want your ashes scattered? The Memorial section asks about the type of celebration you want to have. Do you have certain songs you want played, is there a charity you want donations to go to, are there certain people you want notified? If there are areas where you don't have a strong preference, you can just put "no preference."
This is just a brief overview of some of the questions included. I am not an expert on these matters. I am just someone who has experienced loss and wants to make it a little easier for myself and my loved ones when death happens. I wanted to write this blog in case it could help you and your families too. Please feel free to edit the document to suit your needs. There are also resources online and software programs to help you with this process. Mortuaries typically have a booklet you can fill out as well with this type of information.
When I gave the questionnaire to my mother and sister, they both readily filled it out. My sister wants Led Zeppelin's Thank You song played during her memorial. She wants roses, orchids, and stargazer lilies. It comforts me to know that she will have the music and flowers she wants, not the ones that I want or the ones I think she wants. I know who my mom wants to conduct the funeral service and I know that she wants it to say "she lived with pizzazz" on her headstone. My dad was a little more reticent to fill out the form. He never actually did, so I asked him the questions and then documented his answers and sent it out to my family. It's about having the conversation in whatever way works for you and your family.
Some people feel that the survivors should make the decisions based on what they want because they are the ones alive and suffering the loss. For example, my husband wants to have a green burial, but the closest option is an hour away from where we live. Although this is his preference, he feels even stronger that he would want me to be happy. If I preferred to have his ashes scattered someplace I visit frequently or saved for us to be scattered together, he wants that for me.
It can get complicated to leave it up to the survivors without discussing it ahead of time in the event that they have differing opinions. Why risk creating more heartache during an already sensitive time when emotions are high and we need to support each other, not work against each other? Help your loved ones stay united by taking the guesswork out of it. By having the conversation, you can understand what aspects are most important to one another and have a joint plan that honors everyone's wishes.
Filling out the questionnaire or having a discussion about this topic is truly a special gift you can give to your loved ones. If you want to take it a step further, you can make arrangements ahead of time. My sister has prepaid for her cremation with Neptune Society. My mom has pre-paid for her plot, headstone, burial, and more with the mortuary of the memorial park she wants to be buried at. It is estimated that costs double every decade for burial services, so if you prepay, you can save money by locking in at the current rate. I am truly grateful that my mom has made all of these arrangements. It's not about the money, it's about making it easier for my sister and me when the time comes if she dies before we do. I can find comfort in knowing that where and how she is buried is just as she would have wanted it.
Some people feel comfortable talking about it and others don't. I called my mom this morning to ask her about her arrangements as I was writing this blog. She didn't miss a beat diving right into what arrangements had been made, where the documents were, what newspaper she wanted her obituary in, etc. My dad, on the other hand, doesn't seem to feel as comfortable with the topic and does not have any arrangements made. He said that making these arrangements is something he wants to do, but he finds it to be an unpleasant topic. He doesn't want to think about dying. My mom's boyfriend feels the same way. He hasn't done a will because he says, "I can't think about not being here."
I don't want to think about not being here either, but I love my family and I want to make it as easy as possible for them when I die. And, selfishly, I want them to make it as easy as possible for me when they die. Maybe it's because I love them so much and I know how devastated I will be when they die. I'm trying to help myself.
Death is a part of life whether we like it or not. Even if discussing it is something you don't entirely feel comfortable with, do it for your loved ones. It doesn't have to be something that you dwell on. You can do it now and then revisit it every five to ten years. By addressing the topic, it doesn't mean that you are saying you will be dying any time soon, it just means you recognize that you will die eventually. Personally, I think having my family tell me their final wishes is the greatest gift they could ever give me.
What are your final wishes and have you shared them with your loved ones?
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Everyone has their story of someone they know who ________ (fill in the blank) — was diagnosed with cancer, died from a heart attack suddenly, has Alzheimer's. Sometimes the person is young, sometimes they are old. It's tragic and it shakes us to the core. It jolts us into a very present awareness of life and our fleeting time here. We vow to live healthier, live in the moment, appreciate life. Yet, invariably the daily grind of life (with its drama, politics, pressures, expectations) resumes control and takes us away from what is important. We are back to sweating the small stuff, holding grudges, spending too much time on the unimportant. It's not realistic to "live every day like it's our last" because we have very real responsibilities that might prevent us from doing so. However, death can give us the gift of life if we have a healthy relationship with it.
I have definitely changed my life because of all of the illness and death that have happened in my life. I am hyper-aware of our limited time on this earth. Up until my sister was diagnosed with cancer, I lived for the future. What I did in the present was typically focused on what it would bring me in the future. Watching my 33-year-old sister go through chemotherapy, stem cell transplant, surgery, and radiation is etched in my brain. My sister is 13 years cancer-free (yay!), but I carry her tough fight with me always. Because of it, I changed my career path to do something I'm passionate about. I make time for the important people in my life and tell them I love them. I care about my health. I am kind to myself and others. I (try to) live in the moment.
While I think this is all a positive side of these sad happenings, there is a dark side. I worry a lot. I worry about the phone ringing and my life changing in an instant. I worry about losing my dad, my mom, my sister, my husband, my friends, my pets. I worry about them getting cancer, dying, having a stroke. I can be having an amazing holiday dinner with my family and instead of relishing in the joyous moment, I'm truly, physically sad because I know that some day I won't be able to celebrate this occasion with all of them. The reality of life is that we die. Yes, this awareness makes me appreciate the moment—which is a good thing. However, I'm so worried about the uncertain certain future that it also has the opposite effect of taking me out of the present moment—which is not a good thing.
There has to be a balance. Death gives us the gift of life. It is a reminder that our time is finite. But fearing it does us no good because it takes us out of the present. We have no control over when illness or death will arrive for us or our loved ones, but we do have control over how we choose to live our lives.
Have you found life through death? If it has been a while and some of those life lessons have been lost, try not to wait for the phone to ring to be a reminder of who and what is important to you. You've got one life. Take control and make it the life you want.