Death is a funny thing. We are taught at a fairly young age that “death is a part of life.” We are comfortable dealing with death in abstract, philosophical terms. Depending on our background we may talk about going to a better place, or back to the earth or we may see our time here as all there is. What we don’t like to talk about is our death.
Recently I watched a TED Talk by an Australian ER doctor on how to talk about dying. The first thing that struck me was that you can find a TED Talk on any subject. The second thing that struck me were his statistics on how we are dying today and the impact that has on families.
Statistically, sudden death is very rare and terminal illnesses are more likely to impact people at a younger age. The two biggest growth areas, so to speak, are increasing organ failure and frailty. This translates into more and more people dying in intensive care units. Any death creates stress in the family and loved ones left behind but, according to Dr. Saul, when this death occurs in intensive care the stress created increases 7 %. As someone who has lost most of my family, I have seen the impact this stress has on those left behind.
My mother died at the age of 61, a relatively young age. When she was 37 she had a seizure and subsequent car accident. This was when doctors discovered an anomaly in her brain that had been there, dormant, since birth. She lived the next 24 years knowing that any day she could have another seizure or a stroke and be gone. While she didn’t like to discuss the specifics of her condition, we are Midwesterners after all, she made sure that we knew her wishes. We knew she never, ever, under any circumstances wanted to be kept alive on life support. She lived her life very deliberately and she was adamant that if she wasn’t being productive and doing everything she wanted to do we were to “send her on.” I can remember being a teenager and rolling my eyes at these morbid conversations but as an adult I am incredibly grateful.
As painful as it was to lose her at such a young age, I never once doubted what her wishes were or what she expected us to do. I didn’t suffer from the burden of the “what ifs.” What if we’d done more? What if we made the wrong decision? What if, what if, what if? These nagging questions are what tear families apart.
In my practice I strive to give clients and their families the tools they need to not only plan for the inevitable, but also to have the conversations now that will spare their loved ones the burden of the what ifs down the road.
When someone dies those that are left behind have a lot to deal with. From an emotional side, we all go through the five stages of grief. This looks different for different people but as I was told after mom died “grief is a physical process and your body is going to go through it with or without you.” From the practical side, there are arrangements to be made, notifications, bills to pay and property to address.
It sounds odd, but the best way to help our loved ones as they are grieving is to limit the amount of practical decisions they have to make after we’re gone. Writing a will, preplanning funeral arrangements, keeping a list of all our accounts and passwords, or a list of people to contact personally when we die. All of these things take the burden off our loved ones in their time of grief. It is much easier to check things off the list than to make big decisions when we are under stress. Having a plan in writing is a good first step. Sitting down and talking with your loved ones face to face is even better. Explain your wishes, let them ask questions, start a dialogue. The family conflicts I see after someone dies almost always resolve around unanswered questions. In the absence of information we assume our own. When the person with the answers is already gone, all we have left are assumptions.
We cannot avoid our death but we can define it. We can choose to make our wishes known and we can choose to lessen the practical stress that is placed on our loved ones after we die. The choice is up to us.