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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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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Thinking Ahead About the Unthinkable


I do not understand people’s reluctance to talk about end of life matters. Do we think that by talking about dying we send an invitation to Death?

We’re all going to die, and we know this. We also expect that our parents will die before us, although enough children die early to give us pause. When I looked at the obituaries in the local newspaper, I was surprised to find that 25% of the people who died were under the age of 60.

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

What if there’s a car crash? What if someone slips on a patch of ice? If something should happen, we want to know what our loved ones want so that we can respect their wishes. Say you’re married. What if one of you needs to be in assisted living? Where do you want to go? Have you checked out retirement places and placed your name on the waiting list?

What if you suffer a catastrophic injury? Do you want to be resuscitated if only machines can keep you alive? Do you want cremation or burial, and where? What if you’re now living by yourself and daily chores are becoming difficult to do because you can’t bend over and reach the floor. Have you set up one of your children with the power of attorney in case you’re incapacitated? My parents begrudgingly did most of these things, but only after we, their children, had bugged them for an entire year. They were in their 80s and 90s. Did they expect to live forever?

The time to make end-of-life decisions is when we have time to see how our decisions feel, and can adjust them if we change our minds. Sometimes what is prudent is not what our hearts really want.

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

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 that’s 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, and her corneas returned sight to someone else. Consider organ and tissue donations, and if you make a decision, tell your loved ones, and do what you need to do to set it up. 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, including 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. 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 wooden 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 sit down and had the talk.

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