Taking Responsibility For Creating a Positive End of Life Experience
Today I spoke with Richard Rosin, Winnipeg’s friendliest undertaker. We talked about why it’s important to prepare for end of life, what makes a “good death”, and the best way to approach preparation for end of life.
Don’t want to read this post? HERE is a link to the video to my discussion with Richard.
If you’ve been following me at all, you know I’m a huge proponent of the simple is best approach for tackling life’s big changes. We can become death literate in baby steps. But we have to start. Something is better than nothing. So let’s begin with WHY.
WHY SHOULD BE PREPARE FOR END OF LIFE?
Because not preparing creates ongoing stress in our lives. And if you are alive in the 21st Century, you know we can all do with reducing our stress levels.
If we’re not ready or not acknowledging it, every time we encounter mortality, (eg: a celebrity death, an illness in the family, news about COVID19, driving a vehicle, taking a trip, etc.), we can have this nagging sense of WHAT IF in the back of our mind.
Also, having a departure plan in place is a very kind and loving thing to do for those you care about. Nobody really wants to add insult to injury by leaving a mess behind when we die for our grieving loved ones to deal with. We’ve all heard the horror stories. Someone has to close out our lives when we go. And that in itself is another stressor people think about; either closing out our own life or someone else’s.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD DEATH?
For me, this question has two aspects. There’s a physical good death, and there’s an existential good death.
The physical: We all want to die without pain and suffering. This means having an advance care plan in place and making sure our wishes are known so they can be respected.
The existential: First of all, being okay with being mortal is critical. This means living our life in a way where we will have no regrets when we do run out of time. Being kind, being our authentic selves, living our values, having a life of purpose and meaning, these are all important. We can have a good death when we live a good life.
WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO PREPARE FOR END OF LIFE AND A GOOD DEATH?
First, get comfortable with mortality. Get comfortable with the D-words: dead, death, dying, deceased. It’s important to call it what it is. No euphemisms. It’s not morbid, it’s factual and direct, and being direct, when tempered with empathy, is compassionate.
Next, use some other D-words to take action: DISCOVER, DECIDE, DISCUSS, DOCUMENT
1 DISCOVER where you’re at, learn something new
- Take stock of what you have in place
- Figure out which gaps you’d like to fill
- Take a class, do some research, learn what it takes to become good to go
2 DECIDE what is most important, what you want to prioritize and take action on.
3 DISCUSS your decisions.
- Have conversations with those who will contribute to or be impacted by the decisions your are considering for your end of life planning
- Consult with professionals. Take responsibility for making good decisions
4 DOCUMENT your decisions. If it’s not written down, it doesn’t count!
- Create or update your will, POA, or Advance Care Plan
- Assign the people who will speak on your behalf: your POA for financial decisions while you’re living, your health agent for your health decisions, and your Executor for carrying out the decisions in your Will
- Write down a family emergency preparedness strategy, so everyone knows their role in case of illness, injury, or death
Pick just one thing to do at a time. You don’t have to finish it all right away. Your end of life plan is a living entity. It changes at the speed of your life, and you have until you die to complete it.
HOW DOES ONE GET MORE COMFORTABLE ACKNOWLEDGING MORTALITY?
1 Get used to using the D-words (We already talked about this. See above.)
2 Be intentional: Be clear on the topic and level of the conversation. Decide whether it’s going to be general or specific, theoretical or practical. Will you be speaking about a specific and personal issue, or do you just want to open the door to having future conversations about mortality? Trust me, you will want to have more than one.
What happens often, is that both parties are willing to discuss death, but neither wants to offend the other by bringing it up. Because it’s a social taboo, people likely won’t bring it up until you do. There is no secret handshake for being death curious/death positive. If you’re okay talking about death, let people know.
If you are comfortable and need to have a conversation with someone else who might not be, here are a few more tips.
3 Open the door gently: Discussing mortality doesn’t have to be solemn or serious. You may be breaking cultural taboos by talking about it, and it will likely be uncomfortable, so get creative. Use food, keep it casual, make it fun if that’s appropriate. Consider your audience, the topic, and what you’d like to get out of the conversation. The goal here is to open the door to future discussions.
4 Warn someone: Never ambush someone with this topic. Don’t invite mom over for tea on the pretense of checking out that cool thing you found at the farmer’s market then surprise her with a conversation on what’s being left to whom in your Will. Breaking someone’s trust like this can slam the door shut on future forays into the topic.
5 Set the stage: Use a recent death as an opening to begin the conversation. If your conversation is general/theoretical, use a celebrity death, for example. If you intend to speak about a specific or practical aspect of dying or death, use a more personal example, such as an experience with someone close to you.
6 Provide a safe space: Consider where you’ll be having the conversation. People are more open to discussing emotional topics when they feel safe and secure. Food helps with that, as does a bit of privacy. Consider coffee over the kitchen table or a walk in the woods. You know what your audience needs; work with that.
REMEMBER: You will most likely be breaking a social/cultural barrier when bringing up end of life planning. Change is uncomfortable, so be prepared for a bit of discomfort. Have empathy, open the door gently, and most importantly, don’t push anyone into talking if they don’t want to. Just letting them know you are willing to talk about the D-words is a huge step forward, so count that as win no matter the outcome.