Let’s face it, there is never going to be a good time to address anything to do with dying, death or grief. When you’re fit and healthy, the last thing on your mind is the end of your life. However, this is actually the very time to take your head out of the sand and admit that life in your body will expire one day, and that you need to address the practical aspects of that. Planning for death when you are healthy means there is a lot less to think about if you become seriously ill.
Anything to do with the ending of life is not an easy thing to contemplate for most people. What is easy is doing nothing. Which is why research for Dying Matters in the UK found that:
- Only 36% of people had made a will
- Only 29% had let someone know their funeral wishes
In the USA, research according to Gallup in 2016 stated that 44% of American adults do not have a will. Amongst minorities, the figures are higher.
In both countries, that’s an awful lot of people who die whose relatives or friends have no idea how they wanted to be treated towards the end of their life. Nor did they know what they would have wanted done with their body, and if they wanted a funeral or not. It’s a lot of decision making at a time when your family or friends are already feeling hammered by grief, and likely to be suffering one of its main effects – inability to make decisions easily. For instance, in the UK, only 51% of people with a partner knew what their partners’ wishes were for the end of their life. Imagine, your spouse or partner dies and you don’t know what they would have wanted, even though you maybe knew them really well, or so you thought. You don’t know whether they wanted to be buried or cremated; you don’t know what kind of coffin they wanted, or whether they wanted one or not; you don’t know if they even wanted a funeral (it’s not compulsory to have one). It’s a lot of missing information, and it can cause considerable distress to the one left behind. If you haven’t gone through it, it’s hard to understand the soothing effect that knowing you are carrying out your partner’s wishes can have.
However, many people are, in theory, interested in planning ahead, especially when considering the idea of ‘dying well’. Research from a Compassion in Dying report showed that those who had their wishes formally recorded were 41% more likely to be reported as dying well. Further research showed that 82% of people would not want their doctor to make final end-of-life treatment decisions on their behalf, and 52% would rather make these decisions themselves, with their wishes written out in advance.
When asked, it’s clear that most people are interested in planning ahead, at least theoretically. However, the current confusion and lack of awareness amongst both the public and healthcare professionals doesn’t help people to prepare well, and can even interfere in them making good end of life plans. This combined with the lack of practical support available to help people complete their plans does not help the situation. Hence the existence of Before I Go Solutions ® and the products and programmes on offer.
Here are some of the reasons people have given for completing their end of life plans:
I wanted to get my affairs in order, so my sons would have an easier task after I’m gone – Michael, Scotland
I don’t want anyone to have to deal with what I had to do when my parents died. –Fiona, Scotland
When I went home at Thanksgiving this year, my parents asked if they could meet with me and my siblings to talk about their funeral and other plans and wishes. I think they felt good knowing their wishes would be honoured by us and they got it off their chest. It was hard for us but we were glad they wanted us to know and we could hear from them what they wanted. They were a good role model for us all. – Kathleen, USA
Whatever the motivating reason is, there’s no doubt that taking the steps to address the practicalities involved in the end of a life are important. Just as prospective new parents plan for the birth of their baby, so too it benefits everyone involved when you make your end of life plans.
But Plans Never Go To Plan!
‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans’. This joke is funny simply because plans so often don’t turn out the way you want them to. However, the plan itself is something that gives you (and your family) a sense of security. With that, fear can take a back seat, and when fear is absent, love gets to come forward. In fact, the very act of planning in itself helps the mind to feel calmer about what might happen. A plan also produces organised structures and systems for those left behind, for yourself if you need to find something quickly, and finally, once you’ve completed your end of life plan, it can be struck off your to-do list and all you need to do then is revisit regularly to make sure it is up to date and reflecting your current wishes.
Wanting To Be In Control
Wanting to be in control of one’s end of life is not unusual, especially for those who have seen first-hand how challenging it can be for those who are dying, and their relatives and friends. Many people say they just want nature to take its course, and there is nothing wrong with this. It is a completely personal choice whether you have an end of life plan or not. Some people, having educated themselves or been in the end of life care professions are clear that they do not want to just let nature do its thing. Others are willing to trust that whatever happens, will be acceptable to them. It really doesn’t matter, when we are talking about the ending days, weeks or months of your own life. What does matter though, is what you leave behind you, because that is what affects others. Regardless of whether you choose to let nature take its course or not towards the end of your life, there will still be the matter of a body to be disposed of and a life to tidy up for those left behind. Taking care of this kind of practical aspect of your life is a great gift to your relatives.
The Derailing Effect of Grief
When you realize how utterly discombobulating grief can be, the motivation to take care of the administrative effects of your life increases dramatically. I was astonished at how little I could do, particularly in the months directly after Philip’s death, and at a time when I was being required to make all sorts of decisions. And I was lucky – in the last few months of his life, we had answered that list of questions together. So after he died, I had a document I could view to find out what we had discussed, although I also discovered we had missed loads out. For example, we didn’t consider how he might like his body to be transported to the funeral home (at the time, we had no idea there were other ways to take care of bodies than an undertaker or funeral director). Because he died in hospital, his body was brought to the funeral home two hours away by the undertaker. If we had addressed this, we might just have been able to have a friend do it in an estate car, or a white van man pick it up. (I think Philip would have laughed at that; but that’s the thing, I didn’t know whether he would or not, and so I just went with the status quo, which ended up costing a lot of money).
It’ll Never Happen To Me
This is a common thought, and certainly I used to think that, albeit not very consciously. The fact of the matter is, death does happen to people like you and me. It can, and does, happen out of the blue, like a distant cousin of mine who lost control of his car one evening, smashed into a tree, and died at the wheel, aged just 24. Tragic.
A diagnosis of a life threatening illness can make you stop in your tracks; a gentle but slow demise as your parents age naturally and the body winds down to the end of its life is a more common way that death visits a family. Yes, it is easier to do nothing about end of life planning. Much easier, but in the blog post next time, I’ll outline 7 reasons why it really is a good idea to bother. Look out for it!