Thinking Ahead About the Unthinkable

My Story

I am not afraid of death. Or grief. I feel like I live between two worlds — the world of the grieving and the world that ignores death at all costs.

My wife died suddenly of an unknown heart problem when I was in my forties. I went to work in the morning, she had her attack, and I didn’t have the chance to even say goodbye.

Because we expected to live forty more years, Evelyn and I had not talked about end-of-life issues. We were going to do that sometime in the distant future. When she died, I had to have answers for a lot of questions right away without knowing what she wanted.

Thankfully she had a sticker on her driver’s license for donating her organs, so I did not have to struggle over making the call to let someone cut into my wife’s body and take out parts. I did have to decide on my own to turn off the life-support machines.

No Promise of Tomorrow

With Evelyn unexpectedly dying at a young age, I realized that any of us can go at any time from an unknown health problem, a car accident, or slipping on a patch of ice.

So I try to live each day as fully as I can and love the people I’m with, because there’s a chance that tomorrow one of us may not be here. If you look at the obituaries in the local newspaper, you may find that 25% of the people who died are under the age of 60.

A lot of us go before we think it’s time.

I don’t know why we’re so skittish about death, as if talking about dying would cause it to happen. We also don’t like to talk about grief. And viewing dead bodies in the funeral home? Oh, boy.

The time to talk about end-of-life matters is when we’re not in cardiac arrest.

We’re all going to die. We know this. And we expect that our parents will die before us, but enough adult children die before their parents to give us pause. We want to know what our loved ones want so that we can respect their wishes.

The time to make end-of-life decisions is when we’re not under pressure. Then we have time to see how our decisions feel, and we can adjust them if we have further ideas. Sometimes what is prudent is not what our hearts really want.

Let’s say an ambulance rushes your mother to the hospital. She’s unconscious, and they ask you if you want her resuscitated if she goes into cardiac arrest. What do you say?

Your mom may have already had three heart attacks, is on oxygen, and she’d be fine moving on to be with her husband in heaven. But you can’t ask her because she’s unconscious, and they need to know now.

What Do You Have to Decide?

  • Resuscitation and extraordinary measures
    Do you want medical personnel to do everything they can to keep you alive? What if there are no indications of any brain activity? Do you want to stay hooked up to machines if they are the only way you can stay alive? Talk to your primary doctor about different levels of resuscitation, and make sure that she or he knows of your decision, as well as your family.
  • Organ donation
    My wife’s organs gave life to four women who were about to die, her corneas returned sight to someone else, and her skin tissue donation helped fifty people heal from burns. Make a decision about donating and tell your loved ones. It will save them a lot of anguish.
  • Cremation or burial
    You might be surprised to find out that your dad wants his ashes scattered in Hawaii where he was in the service, rather than buried next to his parents.
  • Make a will
    If you decide ahead of time who in your family will inherit which of your possessions, you’ll save your family a lot of infighting that could go on for years. After Ev’s death, I lined up friends for my possessions, and had someone who agreed to take care of my cats.
  • Power of attorney
    If your surviving parent is incapacitated, who has the power of attorney to make legal decisions in a crisis? It takes time to set this up, and you can’t if your parent is in a coma or had a stroke.
  • Funeral or Memorial Service
    This is a fun one. What does your loved one want to have included in his or her funeral or memorial service? My mom surprised me when she said that, among other things, she wanted Dixieland music from New Orleans because she wanted a celebration. I think she also wanted toy parrots, but I’ll have to check her instructions as it’s been twenty years since she wrote her service. She did that only because her congregation was having everyone write what they wanted at their funerals.

As for my dad, I don’t know what he wants. He’s 92, so it’s probably time that we had the talk.