I never thought about death much, other than as a concept, until my husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. Then it made its entrance with a bang. Even though he was 65, it felt far too young to be contemplating death.
We learnt a lot about each other, about life, and about death in what turned out to be his last year. Now, aged 60, I am aware of the juxtaposition of life and death. It is simply impossible to have one without the other – just a walk in nature will show us that.
But somehow, human beings (particularly in the Western world) have made a taboo out of dying, death and also grief. I was surprised at how difficult some of our friends found it when my husband was diagnosed, and later after he died. I was surprised at who showed up with a card, a note or a practical offering of help; and I was surprised who literally ignored me or obviously felt uncomfortable.
Now, my work is educating others to become more at ease with dying, death and grief. I don’t want people as they age to become more isolated, more in denial, more awkward with the one thing that we know for sure will happen.
What that means for you is being willing to face up to death now, before it becomes part of your life in a bigger way.
So the following will help you if you’ve ever…
- found yourself feeling awkward because someone you know has been bereaved
- thought ‘I must get round to doing my end of life stuff’ (and then never found the time)
- found yourself holding a grudge with someone
Here’s 7 actions you can take to make sure you welcome in a good death when the time comes. Some of these my husband did, and some I only discovered were important afterwards.
1. Live Life Now
This may sound obvious, but the thing is, although now I talk about my husband’s ‘last year’ we didn’t know it was his last year at the time. Nor did we know when it was his last day. You can’t know about the ‘last’ anything until it’s been and gone. So be here now, and do that by running everything you do through a filter of ‘Am I enjoying myself?” – and if not, stop doing it!
2. Discover You Are More Than A Body
It’s a lot easier to accept the fact your body will come to the end of its life some day if you are aware you are more than a body. When I looked at my husband on the hospital bed, after he had just died, all I saw was an empty bag. It was patently obvious that he was no longer in that bag. Find out who you really are; find out what it is that ‘fills the bag’; discover what it is that makes you ‘you’ – and it’s not your personality, mind, thoughts, emotions or feelings – there is something else entirely.
3. Take Care of Practicalities Beforehand
Even though you may know you are not just a body, when you die there is the physical evidence of a body and the life it led to be taken care of by your relatives. Make it easier for yourself in your last days, and for them afterwards, by preparing an end of life plan, such as in the Before I Go workbook.
4. Resolve Outstanding Conflicts in Relationships
Life really is too short to let grudges, misunderstandings and hurt feelings fester. I now know that anything can happen to anyone at any time. Do you really want to die with these kinds of things left hanging?
If not, take the time to continuously keep your relationships up to date. Don’t wait for the other to apologise – free yourself by apologizing to them for holding them in a place of judgment that they were not apologising to you!
5. Designate a Special Person
A doula is an end of life companion. Not every family member can manage to be with a dying relative. Sad, but true. And anyway, you may want someone else there, who has trained in how to be around the dying. Think of this in advance, and set it up (part of your end of life planning).
6. Create Your Advance Directive
Be clear about how much you want to receive life-sustaining treatment. It’s becoming more and more important to identify in advance what kind of treatment you want towards the end of your life.
Given that our medical professions are about prolonging life at what sometimes feels like all costs, if you know you wouldn’t want to be resuscitated, or receive life-sustaining treatment under certain conditions, then make sure you create your Advance Directive (aka Living Will). This will allow you to state your wishes. In some countries and states this is a legal document; make sure you know what applies in your area. If you are already ill, make sure you have completed an Anticipatory Care Plan (see your doctor for this).
7. Prepare Your Last Days Wishes Instructions
Sometimes this is referred to as an Advance Statement. Not usually legally binding, this is still an important document, where you can state preferences as to what you like to eat (if indeed, you still want to eat), what kind of music or atmosphere you would like around you, who you would prefer to be there and so on.
There are many more things to be covered, but this is a great start. If you want to know more, check out my Before I Go workbook and courses – all designed to get you creating and writing down your own end of life plan.
What have you found eases facing up to death? Have you talked with your loved ones about your wishes? How have you approached creating your Advance Directive? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments.