I had a big wake-up call recently as to the fact that there is always a possibility that I might not “be here tomorrow”—in simple terms—I may have left this life, not just because I am an ageing woman but through an accident or sudden health event. This wake up call came about when a beautiful local woman, whom I knew but hadn’t seen for a few years, died in a car accident very close to where I live.
That night as I sat there thinking about her and the wonderful legacy she left behind in the community, I asked myself a question, “If that had been me, what sort of a mess would I have left behind for my family to clean up?”, in other words; was my will up to date, did my family know what bank accounts I have, what outstanding bills, who to call, what to do with my ‘stuff’, and even, what will they think of the state of my drawers, cupboards etc! The list was very long. I soon realised, that even though a couple of years ago I had taken steps to get my affairs in order, they sure weren’t as orderly and up to date as they could be.
Death, and the way we may die, is not a subject that many like to talk about, in fact some people I know flatly refuse to discuss it in any way. Maybe it is because they are in the denial that it will ever happen and we all know the reality of that scenario. There is definitely no ‘if’ in whether we die, but there is definitely a ‘when and how’.
So, why wouldn’t we plan for this absolute eventuality? We plan for our future, our education, our family, our retirement, but it seems that most stop there as the next stage is one that doesn’t have the same appeal.
People’s reactions to the subject of death and dying became very obvious a couple of years ago when I was part of a team from the local Hospice who set up a stand at the library to talk about starting the conversation about death and dying.
By the end of our two-hour shift it was clear that the people who we set out to engage with fitted into three distinct groups:
- The ones who literally ran away from us the moment we mentioned the word dying.
- The ones who were totally organised and some of those, surprisingly, were quite young.
- The ones who had no will and nothing prepared, and some of those had children.
As we are responsible for our day to day lives, we are also responsible for what we leave behind for our family to deal with when we die. And if we have young children, knowing that they are going to be cared for and by whom, is one super important responsibility. It is all very well knowing that we are leaving our family, or maybe friends, our ‘estate’, as big or as little as that may be, but do we stop and consider what else we are leaving them? After all the chances are, they will be grieving at losing us, so surely, it’s up to us to make sure that this painful situation is not exacerbated by, what I have come to see is, a lack of responsibility as to what we leave behind for them to sort out. And you don’t have to be ‘old’ to begin sorting out your ‘affairs’, as the reality is, many die young.
So where to begin? I have found that the starting point is often the hardest part in anything we do as we are possibly so overwhelmed by what needs to be done that, we may end up not even taking that first step. And it’s that first step that is the key to the door and once we’re through that door the rest tends to become a whole lot easier. It’s a bit like knowing that your whole house needs painting inside and out and you just keep putting it off as it feels way too hard. I always suggest to pick one room, the smallest one, or maybe just one wall, and start there. Once completed it’s amazing how that feels, so the next wall is so much easier as you are energised from how awesome that first wall looks and feels.
It’s the same when you start to plan today for not being here tomorrow.
For me, the first step was making sure that my will was up to date and that started with having a conversation with the family I share this property with, as in this shared situation I have even more responsibility than if I was living in my own home. Since I began that first conversation the rest have been so easy—well most of the time—and often filled with jokes and much laughter, usually at my expense. Last evening it was about leaving behind messy drawers, and they replied don’t worry they’ll go on the bonfire – with you! We’ve made dying simply a part of living, which it naturally is; after all, it’s all one cycle of life. Even my grandchildren come in on the conversation at times. They have become quite used to talking about death, as over the last few years we have had quite a few animals die and a year ago they experienced the sudden death of their beloved ‘adopted’ grandmother and the subsequent funeral.
Next on the planning list – which will be so helpful for our families – is a list of all our friends to be called, another list for bank accounts, organisations we are a part of etc. I found it amazing how long this list became.
And then there is our care if we are terminally ill before passing over; how we want to be cared for; what we want around us; who we want to see; what we want to eat; where would we like to spend our last days. The list can be long but one worth making as it is an opportunity to honour the wonderful person we are. There is actually so much to think about and plan, and of course, that will be personal to each of us. Our local Hospice organisation has a beautifully presented planner available for all these requests which is a great support for our family and carers when faced with having to make decisions about our medical care.
And finally, it is so important to share about the funeral we want, whether we want to be buried or cremated, whether we want a private funeral or one for all who wish to celebrate our life. I heard recently about a woman who wanted to be cremated but didn’t tell her family and so she was buried, something she absolutely didn’t want.
To be able to talk about my wishes and plans for when I die with those close to me has been such a liberation from the past when death was only spoken about in hushed and secretive tones, especially as a child, when the adults in my life thought they were saving me from being upset. Wrong – a child doesn’t have to hear what’s going on, they can feel it, and therefore wonder why the adults are keeping secrets and not being honest. It’s even possible that they might begin to think there’s something very wrong and they so begin to worry, unable to share their fears.
Over many years I have learned that children are a whole lot wiser and switched on to life than we give them credit for. So, is it possible – I know it is – that if we begin to talk about death and dying with our children from a young age, making it as normal as talking about everyday life, discussions about death and dying won’t be something they shy away from in the future? Instead it will be something they accept and in doing so naturally plan for this eventuality the same way they plan for every other part of their lives?
Planning today for not being here ‘tomorrow’, no matter whether we are ageing or not, ought to be a natural responsibility, one that we all say yes to, sooner rather than later, and then make sure we don’t delay our plans by not taking that first responsible step.