Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Thinking Ahead About the Unthinkable

(I wrote this article for the Supportive Care blog at OSF Saint Francis, Peoria, Illinois.)

I am not afraid of death. Or grief. I live between two worlds — the world of the grieving and the world that ignores death at all costs.

My wife died suddenly of an unknown heart problem when I was in my forties. I went to work in the morning, she had her attack, and I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye.

Because we expected to live another forty years, Evelyn and I had not talked about end-of-life issues. We were going to do that sometime in the distant future. When she died, I needed immediate answers for a lot of questions without knowing what she wanted. Thankfully she had a sticker on her driver’s license for donating organs, so I did not have to struggle with making that decision. I did have to decide when hope was gone and turn off the life-support machines.

With Evelyn dying unexpectedly at a young age, I realized that any of us could go at any time from an unknown health problem, a car crash, or slipping on a patch of ice. I didn’t know that people could just die without warning in their 40s. If you look at the obituaries in the local newspaper, you may find that 25% of the people who died were under the age of 60.

So I try to live each day as fully as I can and love the people I’m with, because there’s a chance that one of us may not be here tomorrow.

A lot of us go before we think it’s time.

I don’t know why we’re so skittish about death, as if talking about dying would cause it to happen. We also don’t like to talk about grief. And viewing dead bodies in the funeral home? Oh, boy.

The time to talk about end-of-life matters is when we’re not in cardiac arrest.

We’re all going to die. We know this. We also expect that our parents will die before us, but enough children die before their parents to give us pause.

We want to know what our loved ones want so that we can respect their wishes. The time to make end-of-life decisions is when we’re not under pressure. Then we have time to see how our decisions feel, and we can adjust them if we change our minds. Sometimes what is prudent is not what our hearts really want.

Let’s say an ambulance rushes your mother to the hospital. She’s unconscious, and they ask if you want her resuscitated because she’s plummeting into cardiac arrest. What do you say? Your mom may have already had three heart attacks, is on oxygen, and she’d be fine moving on to be with her husband in heaven. But you can’t ask her because she’s unconscious, and they need to know now.

What are some of the matters to decide?

Resuscitation and extraordinary measures. Do you want medical personnel to do everything they can to keep you alive? What if there are no indications of any brain activity? Do you want to stay hooked up to machines for years if they are the only way you can stay alive? Talk to your primary doctor about different levels of resuscitation, and make sure that she or he knows of your decision, as well as your family.

Organ donation. My wife’s organs gave life to four women who were about to die, her corneas returned sight to someone else, and her skin tissue donation helped fifty people heal from burns. Consider organ and tissue donations, and if you make a decision, tell your loved ones. It will save them a lot of anguish.

Cremation or burial. You might be surprised to find out that your dad wants his ashes scattered in Hawaii where he was in the service, rather than his body being buried in a casket next to his parents.

Make a will. Designate beneficiaries for your life insurance policies and retirement accounts. If you decide ahead of time who in the family will inherit which of your possessions, you’ll potentially save your family from infighting that could tear relationships apart. After Ev’s death, I gave away many of her things to friends who could use them. I also lined up people for my possessions, and had someone who agreed to adopt my cats.

Power of attorney. If your surviving parent is incapacitated, who has the power of attorney to make legal decisions in a crisis? It takes time to set this up, and you can’t if your parent is in a coma or had a stroke.

Funeral or Memorial Service. This is a fun one, or it can be. What does your loved one want in his or her service? My mom surprised me when she said that she hoped for Dixieland music from New Orleans because she wanted a celebration. I think she also wanted colorful parrots, but I’ll have to check with her, as it’s been twenty years since she wrote her service. She did this only because her congregation was having everyone write down what they wanted in their funerals.

As for my dad, I don’t know what he wants. He’s 92, so it’s probably time that we had the talk.

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  1. I experienced the same thing when my young husband died. I never had to make the agonizing decision, like you about taking him off of life support as he died instantly. But I knew about how he felt about organ donation and felt that was a precious gift to give. I loved your statement about how you live between the two worlds - the world of the grieving and the one that ignores death at all cost - VERY TRUE!! I know of that world myself and now feel called to open the eyes of those around me through blogging (GreetGrief.com) and my FB page Greet Grief. Even if it is uncomfortable, people need to hear about reality through those who have lived it!!

  2. Thank you for your words. It still amazes me that people don't see the need to talk about these things ahead of time. It's not that they don't want to as much as they don't think they have to. And so many died young and unexpectedly. I sorry to hear about your husband. Being a young widow or widower shatters so much in our lives. I'm glad that you are helping to educate people and further the conversations.