On Death & Dying: Preparing for the End When You're Just Getting Started

There's a large cemetary my son and I drive by regularly. It's tucked in between a highway and shopping mall. It makes me sad to think that someone can end up buried for all eternity next to an Olive Garden, but I guess there are worse places to end up. One of the first times we drove by, my son commented about all of the pretty flowers. I explained that it was a cemetary and that each one of those bouquets represented somebody who had died. He responded with a simple "oh". The next time we drove by, he asked me why people die. I explained that eventually our bodies just break down and that it happens to everyone, but hopefully not until we're very old and have lived a full and happy life. Most recently when we passed by, he told me that he didn't want to die. I told him that I didn't want him to die either and that hopefully it wouldn't be something he had to worry about for a long long time. We've never shyed away from the topic of death. It's an inevitable part of life and I'd rather lay a solid foundation than have my son's first encounter with the idea be at the time he loses somebody he loves dearly. We don't talk about death enough in our culture, especially when we are young and so alive, but I think that cheats us and our loved ones of a lot. Not only does it leave everyone emotionally and mentally unprepared, it also puts people in a terrible situation should they have to make decisions about the end of our life without knowing our wishes. 

My own first up close encounter with death happened when I was twelve years old. My grandfather who was dying of cancer moved into our home under hospice care and spent his final weeks of life in my childhood bed room. There aren't words that can adequately describe what death looks like up close. It is messy, it is hard, it is difficult to watch and hear and smell. But it can also be still and quiet and mundane- full of routine...shift changes, med administration, and the business of dying. Since that initial experience, the cycle of loss has repeated itself a few times in my life.

And then there's the bizarre nature of grief. It catches you off gaurd in moments that you thought were safe. It hits in the lyrics of a song or in the midst of a memory or in the small quiet moment when your mind is still enough to soak in the loss, the absence of what was. It has no respect for boundaries or context. It floods in all around you and swallows you whole before you even know what's happening. In my early twenties when my grandmother died, I remember going through her calendar and calling to cancel her upcoming appointments. When I got the receptionist at the podiatrist's office, I told her that I was calling to cancel an upcoming appointment because unfortunately, my grandmother had died. She burst into tears, sobbing on the other end of the line. I found myself, the grandaughter, comforting this stranger on the other end of the line. "I'm so sorry for your loss", I said quietly before hanging up the phone. I've laughed about that encounter many times over the past several years. How strange grief is. 

Most recently, death has come knocking at my door as my husband and I prepare our will. It feels strange to talk about our end of life wishes while we are young and vibrant and pretending like we have decades before we need to worry about such things. But the truth is, death waits for no man and has no respect for our own personal agendas and plans. It comes when it wants, sometimes swiftly and often unfairly. The process of discussing our end of life wishes was eye opening. We each learned a lot about ourselves and each other. We vulnerably had to ask people to take on the immense responsibility of raising our son should something happen to us. We had to reflect on our hopes for his future, a future that might not include us. Despite the number of tears I've shed thinking about leaving too soon or losing Dustin before I'm ready, I am also confident now that I know his wishes and that he knows mine. I know that I will not burden my family for weeks on end, draining them of our assets as they try to cling to me, because they will know that I don't want that. I know that my ashes will be spred in some of my favorite places, becoming a part of something new. I know that our son will be well cared for and that we are setting our extended family up to successfully and comfortably raise him for a future that is bright. 

It might seem silly to have an attorney draw up a will at this stage of your life, while your family is young and just getting started, but I'd argue that this is the most important time to do it. Your loved ones should have no doubt about what you want to happen, to you or to your children. You should give them as many tools and resources as you can to carry on in your absence. The transition for your children should be as smooth and seamless as you can make it. You should give your loved ones the freedom of knowing what you want and give yourself the peace of mind to know that it will all be okay. Don't be afraid to confront the end of your life, it makes the living part that much more beautiful.  

 

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