This week, I have attended two different funerals for dear clergy who died too young. These unexpected deaths reminded me what a gift to loved ones it is to plan for a good death. In fact, I realized, it would be good to have an annual check-up each year to make sure all your information is still up-to-date.
Preparing for Creation or Review of Documents
Thinking about, and planning for, our own death is difficult work. It’s not intellectually challenging, but it can be emotionally draining. It is something many people ignore in order to avoid having to deal with the reality of our own death.
Be gentle with yourself. When you do this work, be ready with extra support. Maybe clear your schedule for the day, put on your most comfy clothes, brew a pot of tea/drink a mug of cocoa, listen to your favorite music, and spend the day honoring yourself and your life so far. Imagine what your life may continue to be. And then move into creating or reviewing the documents that will be an enormous help to both you and your loved ones at the end of your life.
Scheduling an Annual Review
There are several dates that lend themselves to doing an annual review of your Good Death documentation, but really any time that works for you is what you should use. Tying your annual review to a meaningful date will help you continue the practice from year to year.
You may want to choose a date meaningful to you like:
- Your birthday
- Anniversary of a significant person’s death
- Your annual physical
Or, ideally, you could invite others in your circle to participate in this annual review preparing for a good death. In that case, you may want to choose the week surrounding a holiday such as:
- Día de los Muertos/All Souls Day
- New Years Day
- Passover/Good Friday
What Documents Support a Good Death?
The Five Wishes
Working with the Five Wishes is a great, gentle way to start work in creating your Good Death documentation. My favorite way of using this material–either for myself or when I’m working with someone else– is to use the Go Wish Cards. There are both print cards as well as an easy-to-use free online version. Each card lists something that some people find important for dying well (ie “to be free from pain”). You sort the 36 cards into three piles: Important, Somewhat Important, Not Important. Working with these cards is an easy way to create your Top Ten List of what a good death will look like for you.
Take a few minutes to try the online version right now.
Likely, you either already have a will or know you should have a will. If you don’t have one, it may be because you don’t know how to make it happen. Here’s how: many private practice lawyers have a package deal for a few hundred dollars which includes a will, a healthcare power of attorney and a durable power of attorney. Make this investment. Having these documents can keep your estate from going through the court system to decide how to distribute your assets.
If you have children, this is the place that you will designate who will care for them. You have the ability to designate one set of people to be their caregivers and a different set of people to be responsible for their finances. This is also the place where you can clarify when your children will get direct access to their inheritance. Talk with your lawyer–it is often advisable to delay this until age 25 or some older age until they are mature enough to make wise financial decisions. Your lawyer might also suggest a trust document in this case.
A Healthcare Power of Attorney (and Living Will)
As the daughter of a family doctor, our family talked about what a good death means to us over dinner in the evenings. That gave me the security to make decisions first for my father and then for my mother as they neared the end of their lives and could no longer make decisions for themselves. As their healthcare power of attorney, I had the burden and honor of deciding how they would be supported in their final days.
You likely have people who love you who think many different ways about how much intervention should happen at the end of a life. Choose a healthcare power of attorney who feels similarly to you, and who will be willing to be clear with hospital staff about your wishes.
When you choose your healthcare power of attorney, make sure to do more than simply tell them you’ve chosen them — talk to them about your wishes. Share the results of your Go Wish card sorting. And check in with them every few years to be sure you both are still on the same page.
A Durable Power of Attorney
There may come a time when you are unable to make financial decisions, or unable to be present to make a financial transaction. In these cases, a durable power of attorney is extremely useful. Some people name their spouse or a sibling. Others choose a trusted confidant. Your lawyer will help guide you on different options about the scope of these documents.
A List of Accounts and Passwords
In today’s world, we have so many accounts and passwords. For the sake of those who survive you, keep a master list of these accounts and passwords and check them yearly to ensure the are up to date.
Make sure your trusted person knows where to find this document and can access it. I knew someone who keep this list on their computer, but their trusted person didn’t have the password to their computer. That was an unnecessary added stress to the situation.
A Business Contact List
Your Trusted Person should have contact information for your life insurance company, pension, social security, employer, financial accounts, and other business-related groups. Again, reviewing this information annual will be a gift to those you leave behind.
A Personal Contact List
Who needs to hear of your death before it goes public? Create a list of your close family and friends. If you want to achieve A+ status here, you can even create a “phone tree” type thing. Your closest person could contact one family member who is then in charge of making sure other family members know, three friends who all will contact your mutual friends, and one business associate who will spread the word there. Relieving those closest to you from having to make dozens of calls is a great gift on a terrible day in their lives.
Bonus Point One: Obituary
I have seen some lovely obituaries written by the deceased. If that’s not your thing, you could at least have your CV or resume easily available and perhaps jot a few notes about what you’d like to be said about you in your obituary. An obituary outline can be found here.
Bonus Point Two: Funeral Plans
I have sat with dozens of families to work on funeral plans. Most of the time, people are overwhelmed and grieving and are not in a good place to make decisions to create a meaningful service.
Some people prepare for their own funeral by creating a full service bulletin. They give a copy of this to their worship community and closest family members to have on file. Others will tuck in a bulletin from a service they liked with a few notes on it to guide their loved ones. Both of these options make funeral planning so much easier for those left behind.
When families have even a bit of information from the deceased about what they would like at their funeral it makes an immense difference. Make note of a favorite hymn or bible passage or poem. Share a few names of people you’d like to have a part in your service. What feeling would you like to be conveyed in the ceremony? Get this down in writing to share with those who will be left to plan your goodbye.
Planning for The End of Life booklet
If you would like a single booklet which contains this information, download this free pdf from the Episcopal Church Foundation. Print it out, and fill it out, make notes about where other important documents are, and then make sure your Trusted Other knows where it is.
Which of these things do you already have in place? What still needs to be done? What will you commit to do this month?
Do you have a story related to this work, or is there something I missed? Contact me and let me know.