Last year we had three friends and family die in as many weeks. Never had we encountered death so unrelentingly. One thing that struck us was how different every passing was—calm, busy, confusing, painful, loving, etc. We also noticed how each person's death reflected how they lived. Our spontaneous friend died relatively suddenly leaving lots of loose ends, whereas the ex-IBM engineer had anticipated his demise and planned for it meticulously.
While we definitely experienced these deaths as endings, we also saw how they marked a strange kind of beginning for those close to them. In addition to marking the start of a long arc of emotional processing that would ripple out over months and years, these losses likewise ushered in a string of logistical and administrative tasks that were daunting and equally prolonged. It seems that as life has gotten more complicated, so has death. Even the carefully deliberate engineer unwittingly left his widow with months of details to untangle.
Witnessing this made it abundantly clear that putting our affairs in order before we die is one of the greatest services we can do for our loved ones. Given that we can't be certain of when we will die—but we can be certain it will happen—the time to do this is now. We spoke to countless people who have been meaning to do it, but haven't gotten around to it yet. You only have to observe one of your friends struggle with the aftermath of a loved one dying to realize you don't want that to be your legacy. (We provide a link to a list of end-of-life documents below.)
It is not surprising that most of us choose to ignore the inevitable, emotionally and administratively, given our culture's general denial of death. But demographics are changing; baby boomers are kicking the bucket and the nation is being confronted with end-of-life issues in unprecedented numbers. Like every other stage of life they have lived through, baby boomers will end up changing our aging options, and in our opinion, that's a good thing.
One bright beacon for navigating the relative darkness of these issues is Atul Gawande's book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Dr. Gawande is a practicing surgeon and his experiences have led him to challenge conventional medicine's assumptions regarding the best way to care for the aging and the dying. He argues that his profession has gone overboard in its efforts to prolong life, often at the cost of the quality of life. He outlines key questions we need to ask ourselves to figure out how we can die with dignity, autonomy, and even joy.
Essentially Dr. Gawande's book outlines a process for creating a good death. Many of the questions Dr. Gawande recommends considering for how you want to die are exactly the same questions we discuss with our clients about how they want to live:
The life-affirming power of asking these types of questions was first brought home to me (Beth) in high school while performing in Thorton Wilder's play Our Town. Night after night I sat in a chair on stage looking out into the black abyss of the audience as I played a dead townsperson. I and the other cemetery inhabitants would comment on town life from our graves, reflecting on how the living don't seem to realize what they have, what's important, and how precious and fleeting life is. As one of the newly dead remarks in the play:
"Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. ... Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?"
The god-like stage manager character replies, "No. The saints and poets, maybe they do some."
Of course the playwright's wink to the audience is that perhaps now they will be able to realize the value of living and dying consciously, just like the saints and poets do.
Not a year goes by that I do not revisit in my mind that chair on stage and, from the vantage point of my imagined demise, look back and ask my living self: What is important in now? What are my priorities? What do I enjoy? What trade-offs aren't acceptable? How do I want to spend this special time on earth; every, every minute of it?
As we are able to face the inevitability of our passing, not only will we find ourselves better prepared for it, but we will be prompted to ask ourselves the right questions about living too. You may just find that in contemplating death, you fall in love with your life all over again.
Here's a link to a list of end-of-life documents we compiled for ourselves. We do not offer them as professionals, but as fellow mortals. Also check out Atul Gawande's Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. (Maggie, thanks for sharing your copy with us.)
Find someone to hold you accountable for completing your end-of-life documents this month. Be sure to celebrate when you have finished them! And remember to review your documents every couple of years to make certain they are current.
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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