I was asked to do a guest post a couple months ago about “End Of Life Preparedness”. Specifically, to address the need for a thing like a Living Will. While I want to do the post, I’ve been putting it off while I work through a balancing act in my head.
I’m not an attorney, I’m just a guy who’s lost a mom, a dad, and a stepmom. I’ve seen other friends and relatives at the doorstep of death as well, and watched as they eased across that threshold into whatever might (or might not) lay on the other side.
What I’ve seen has colored my view of our responsibilities to one another at that important point at the end of this life. It’s colored the way I talk to my kids about how I want to live and how I want to die.
It’s not an easy thing in our culture. We’ve created a culture that absolutely petrified of death and dying. The subject is taboo, and we’re generally at a great loss for words when those around us feel the loss of a loved one. I blogged about loss in this post not long ago, and about our reactions to loss in this post.
It’s a great shame really, that we’re so afraid of death. Death is just one more of many transitions in life. If fact, from the time we’re born, we begin a long series of transitions that are all leading inexorably to death. Looked at that way, death is just the final of these transitions.
Depending on the spiritual paths you happen to be walking at this point in your life, you may view death as a beginning as much as an end. In my book, Peace at the Edge of Uncertainty, I share in very personal detail the spiritual context that I’ve developed as a result of mystical gifts that I’ve been privileged to be part of. If you believe in notions of reincarnation, you probably see death in this life as just another in a series of windows we pass through in the lives we’re part of.
But what about this path we walk today in this life? This path that leads without question to death.
I remember when I was young, and folks would talk about death and dying. It would feel uncomfortable to me – like talking about it might bring it to immediate reality. Superstition I suppose, though people on both sides of my family tree regularly live to something close to (or exceeding) 100 years old.
During the last years of my grandmother’s life, I would fly up to her home and visit with her as often as I could – usually once a year or so. And I would write letters every month or so, and get letters back right up until the end. That communication was possible for me because I accepted that she’d talk about her upcoming death now and then, and I became fine with it.
Her faded eyes would look directly into me and tell me she was tired, and ready to move along to whatever was waiting for her after this life. She’d lived a remarkable life in many ways – a life filled with great joy regardless of the difficulties and challenges presented to her – and her body and mind were just plain tired.
I got it – I really did. I wrote her a letter once telling her I did get it, and understood, and hoped I’d be so blessed to reach that point of “worn out” eventually in my life. I told her how much I loved her, and how much I respected her weariness. I told her that while I’d miss her greatly, she had my complete blessing when she finally decided to let go and move along.
I had to write it in a letter – I thought I might cry if I said it to her face. But next time I saw her, we talked about it, and she told me with greater sincerity than I’d ever seen from her how much she appreciated my understanding and my blessing.
I was lucky with Grandma, because we didn’t have those long-standing resentments and unresolved conflicts that often hold people apart. If she was like most of us, she may have had those sorts of outstanding issues with her kids, just like I had them with my mom and dad. The beauty of the skipped generation is that those things rarely develop. So I could give her permission to move along with my love – she wasn’t leaving behind any of the unresolved clutter with me that makes it hard for us to let go.
There was only love between us.
And that’s it, really. That’s the thing that makes letting go so hard. All those loose ends we never tie up. All those unresolved conflicts, and resentments over the rotten things we’ve often done to one another.
Addressing “end of life” concerns brings all that stuff right up to the front of the screen of life – right where we can’t ignore it. And that, in my opinion, is why we so often put it off. It’s not the business side of things that we really want to put off – the business side of things is really easy. But when we address the business side of things, it’s hard to keep the right brain out of the discussion. Then the heart get’s involved, with all the bumps and scrapes and bruises it’s endured as part of the relationship. And things get messy.
I speak from the voice of experience – painful experience in some cases – when I say that as messy as it is to face the music now, it will only get worse when it’s too late. At least now, there are two wounded hearts that can heal each other, but once one of them is gone, the heart that’s left behind has few options to help it heal. Address the messy stuff now, and the time you have together will be far more rewarding. Most of all, the time after – when only one of you is left behind – will be far more peaceful.
What has to be addressed? Like I say, the business side is pretty straightforward. Who do you want to make decisions for you when you no longer can, and how do you want business taken care of when you’re gone? If you have young children, then the most important thing is defining who you want taking on the responsibility of raising them.
Back to the blogger who I might someday do a guest post with. At my request, she read and reviewed my book – Peace at the Edge of Uncertainty. She didn’t like the book, because it didn’t address those “business issues” that I speak of. She gave the book the lowest ranking it’s ever gotten from a reviewer. In her review, she focuses on her disappointment that the book wasn’t about what she wanted it to be about – those business details. She reviewed the book she wanted it to be, not the book it is.
I don’t begrudge her this – I get it – that’s what a lot of folks want us to focus on – those business details. And I say again that these are indeed important details for each of us to take care of. In her case, she had seen from the perspective of a nurse the problems that can arise when folks don’t take care of those business issues.
There are many great websites and books that describe the “how to” details of this business. At the end of the day, if you’ve made it clear to those around you what your wishes are, and you’ve given them the legal ability to carry-out those wishes, then you just have to trust them to some extent. The “business details” are essentially the dotted i’s and crossed t’s that prevent the state from getting involved in the decisions, so that those you’ve left behind can carry out your wishes.
But there’s an equally (at least) important side of the discussion. Call it “relationship business” if you want. After a loved-one has passed across that threshold out of this life, it’s probably not going to be any i’s that weren’t dotted or t’s that weren’t crossed that will rest in your memory or stir regrets in your heart for all the years of your life. It will be that relationship business that you didn’t take care of. And for those who you want to make decisions on your behalf, it will be those relationship business issues that will make it difficult for them to carry out what they might know to be your wishes.
When my dad fell into a coma unexpectedly in his 60’s, it fell to me and my two siblings to make decisions on his behalf. They weren’t easy decisions, but there was no doubt or disagreement among the three of us about what his wishes would be. The hard part was coming to peace within myself. In my case, some extraordinary spiritual magic helped me tremendously as I walked that path.
For me today, I talk often with my grown children about death. I joke about it, and make sure they know how I feel about life and death and the space in between. They’re getting more comfortable with the fact that I talk about it, but it’s taking time. And in each conversation, I try and find some opportunity to let them know how much they mean to me, and how proud I am of them. Maybe occasionally slip in a regret that I wish I’d done more of this thing, or less of that thing. But mostly it’s about how much they mean to me, and how OK I am with the fact that at some point, I’ll be moving along to whatever’s next.
I went on a 1300 mile bicycle ride from Monterey, CA back to Colorado recently – a good chunk of it by myself. I was crossing the Mojave and Sonoran deserts in June – probably the hottest time of the year – on a bicycle. I’m in the process of blogging about the trip, and the postings will be linked to this summary page as I complete them.
My kids were quite worried about me taking this trip, and tried in their own ways to talk me out of it because of the danger. I used it as an opportunity to let them know that if I die along the way, I’ll die doing something I love – long-distance cycling! Sounds crass I imagine, but it’s an important message for me to get across to those I love.
The message is simple: I love life. I love the life I have now, and the life I’ve lived. I’ll embrace every molecule of the life I have in front of me, and when it’s over, I’m absolutely ready for what’s next. I don’t want to hurry “what’s next” along, but I have no fear of it, and when it gets here, I’m climbing across that threshold with the same gusto I have for the moments today gives to me.
The more comfortable you are talking about it ahead of time, the easier it’ll be when tough decisions need to be made. Find ways to make sure those closest to you have the chance to mend the old wounds, and look for every chance to put salve on them and help them heal. This is the medicine required for the conversations to flow free and easy I think.
At every age, the tough part is having discussions about death and dying. Talk about it with those you love, and let them know how you feel. Doing so will likely clarify some things inside your own heart and soul, and will certainly make it easier for those you love to make the hard decisions they may one day be called on to make on your behalf!