Planning for your death

Where would you want to be if you were dying? It’s a morbid question, and emotionally laden, but it’s one that may be asked when you are diagnosed with cancer. When I picture palliative care, I imagine an old man, confined to a wheelchair, with thick wrinkles and scraggly grey hairs that stick out of his chin, being spoon fed jello that jiggles as the spoon is lifted to his mouth.

I also think of grandparents who gift you their antique china sets or dining room tables when they die. Maybe it’s something you’ve always wanted, or maybe you have to tip toe in response, “it’s beautiful but we don’t have room” or simply agree and stash it in the basement, never to see daylight again. It feels like I’m too young to ask myself these questions, such as who will receive my possessions, but it saves my family the grief from having to ask for me.

Then there are questions about who will take care of the kids, or pets, or both the kids and the pets. I found these to be the harder questions because I was forced to think about what would be best and put aside hurt feelings that might arise from loved ones who aren’t chosen as caregivers. Ultimately, your job is to do what’s best for your family and not make decisions to try to please others.

Making a will is important whether or not you have cancer. It answers these hard questions and saves your loved ones a lot of grief if you are gone.

But it goes beyond making a will.

It’s thinking about where you would want to be if you become sick (or sicker). At first, I fantasized about being somewhere warm. Maybe by a beach. There, I would hear the crisp splashes of the ocean, smell the salty breeze, and feel the warm sun as it lights up my face. But living in Canada, with winter being what feels like half the year, it wasn’t a very practical idea.

The bigger question is not so much where I want to be, but who I want to be with.

My family. My friends. But not everyone. There are some people who take care of you and others who you always find yourself taking care of them. I want to surround myself with those who take care of me.

It’s about thinking about whether you want a funeral. Personally I have a hard time with funerals. They are just so sad. I would prefer a celebration of life where there is a crap ton of alcohol and people swapping amusing stories, and a few tears, about me. Oh and music. Good music.

It’s thinking about what will happen to your body when you’re gone. I reckon a lot of people have considered whether they want to be buried or cremated. I always wanted to donate my organs or tissue to save someone else’s life, but once cancer metastasizes, donation is no longer an option, which makes sense. I wouldn’t want to give anyone cancer because they received a kidney donation from me that had microscopic cancer cells.

The scientist and teacher in me loves the idea of donating my body to students in science. Maybe my body will help medical students hone their skills so that they can save someone’s life in the future. Or maybe my body will help us better understand cancer or spur advances toward finding better treatments, or at least treatment that seems less barbaric.

Donating my body to a university puts me back in the driver’s seat to decide what I want to do with my body and makes me feel like someone still benefits from my loss. It’s not all for naught.

It’s about putting money aside so that your family isn’t left with hard decisions about where you will live, should you be unable to care for yourself, and how they will find the money to care for you. We save up for important things such as buying a house or going on a vacation. Saving up for the “after life” is also something to consider.

It’s about giving your loved ones a roadmap. Writing a eulogy is one example. I always feel bad for those tasked with writing a eulogy after someone passes. There is so much pressure to find the perfect words to capture who this person was and what that person meant to you.

Last year when I had time to myself, well I wasn’t really alone because I was among a hundred other strangers on a flight back from a wedding, I used that time to write my own eulogy. Sure, I drew some looks as tears spilled down my cheeks while I wrote, but the process was so cathartic for me. It forced me to think about what I would want my husband to say if he spoke about me. He doesn’t have to use the eulogy I wrote. He could use his own words, or not even speak at all. But it’s easier to edit a draft once it’s written, rather than trying to start something from scratch. I wanted to give him that option.

All of these questions, and more, are part of the palliative care process. We don’t often talk about death in our society. Even the word death, I find, is hard to say. We say euphuisms like, he “passed away” or my sister is “deceased.” We assume that we have time to ponder these questions, and for many of us, we do. We will contemplate questions about our care, years in the future, when we have more grey hairs on our heads (and chins).

But asking yourself these questions now is such a loving thing to do for yourself and others. You don’t have to wait for a life-limiting illness. You can take control over an outcome, that, for all of us is inevitable but seems less scary when you take the time to plan for it.

10 thoughts on “Planning for your death”

  1. I completely agree with you about funerals! I don’t want anyone looking at me in a casket, or my family having to stand there listening to people say how sorry they are. Your plan is identical to what I envision as well… kind of thinking Pinot & pizza on the beach with al playlist of all my favorite songs. I just heard about your blog. Looking forward to more!

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  2. Your story is so inspiring to me. I lost my husband to stage 4 prostate cancer. It was discovered way too late. After 6 years his health was declining and we discussed letters to our children for events luke graduations, marriages, babies and the like. Sadly, his family felt that this was not supportive of his hospice stay so only one child has a partial letter. Your family will cherish every letter, every blog, every post years from now! Your bravery and fighting spirit is inspiring!

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  3. I just read your story on People..on my daughter’s 10th birthday I was diagnosed with cancer…I had surgery and radiation. I was told they got it all and that I would be fine. Two months later they found more. All I could think of was not being there for my daughter. I prayed and begged God to let me stay until she turned 13…my cancer came back again when she was 12 but more radiation and in August she will be 17. I tell you this so you do not give up hope. Trust in your faith…in yourself. Sending love and support and prayers…email me anytime
    Charlene

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  4. Death Is Nothing At All

    By Henry Scott-Holland

    Death is nothing at all.
    It does not count.
    I have only slipped away into the next room.
    Nothing has happened.

    Everything remains exactly as it was.
    I am I, and you are you,
    and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
    Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.

    Call me by the old familiar name.
    Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
    Put no difference into your tone.
    Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

    Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
    Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
    Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
    Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.

    Life means all that it ever meant.
    It is the same as it ever was.
    There is absolute and unbroken continuity.
    What is this death but a negligible accident?

    Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
    I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
    somewhere very near,
    just round the corner.

    All is well.
    Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
    One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
    How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

    Source: https://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/death-is-nothing-at-all-by-henry-scott-holland

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  5. Beautifully written! I hope you have many years before this becomes a reality. Regarding donating your body to science, you should stipulate an alternative. My father had always said and put in writing that this is what he wanted to do when he died. Unfortunately, at the time of his passing his body was not eligible for donation due to his weight and the amount of fluid he had retained in his last days. It never occurred to us that his gift would be declined. We had to make alternate arrangements not knowing his secondary wishes. This made a difficult time much harder for his family.

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  6. What an inspiration you are to many who are experiencing similar heartwrenching trauma! Your courage and determination is awesome! My best friend died in January this year and because she had been sick for several years, she asked me to write her memorial and officiate. It was a blessing that we had written down answers to many questions I had – even her husband didn’t know some of the information she shared. I felt honoured to write her life story and create meaningful ceremony around it.

    Surrounding you and your family with positive energy….

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