It’s a lovely, peaceful evening. I’ve just finished a large bowl of homemade, post-Thanksgiving turkey soup. Now I’m sipping a cup of my favorite tea while gnawing on a piece of almond-studded, chocolate buttercrunch, and it’s just shy of nineteen days until Christmas. The radio is playing softly in the background. In such circumstances, I can scarcely help but feel thoughtfully philosophical. So, like any normal single woman who has thus far managed to outlast a diagnosis of cancer, I’m thinking of death.
I’ve been thinking of death quite actively for a few weeks now, specifically my own. No, I haven’t had any bad health news lately. And aside from the half-dozen maniacal drivers I encountered in a certain town last Sunday as I was navigating my way to a patient’s home, I haven’t had any recent, near-death experiences either. My house is warm and cozy, the mortgage is paid for another month, and I’m taking a week off right after New Year’s. One might say, if one were so inclined, that I haven’t a care in the world. One would be wrong to assume that, but it would be a forgivable assumption. So perhaps this is exactly the right sort of moment — calm, lacking in panic, nourishing of unvarnished perspective — to be thinking of my death.
I had hopes when I planned this post that I would do lots of practical, Amazonian-style research about estate planning, and hospice care, and advanced directives, and so forth, and explain it all to you as is my wont. But I haven’t quite gotten to that sort of mindset yet. I’m still in the mulling, information-gathering stage.
I’m rather fond of reading murder mysteries, which I admit has perhaps prompted me to think about things that normal people don’t ponder on a daily basis. And since I’m also fond of writing, I admit that various sorts of plot lines and opening paragraphs for my own potential contribution to the genre float through my neurons from time to time. And it’s always interesting to me how the mystery author describes the inevitable scene that occurs after the dead body has been found and identified, and the investigator-protagonist finds her or himself in the deceased’s home and begins to try to put some kind of mental biography together as an aid to figuring out why anyone should want to knock off the deceased in the first place.
This leads me to wonder, with a sort of morbid fascination, what someone would surmise about me from my immediate surroundings, should I suddenly and unexpectedly leave this mortal coil. In mystery novels, there seem to be two main descriptive categories of the deceased’s home. One is that it is suspiciously tidy and impersonal and therefore woefully lacking in clues. The other is that it is found to have been ransacked by someone else, presumably the murderer, before the investigator-protagonist arrives, thus leaving behind rather too many clues, but perhaps missing the very ones the investigator needs to solve the crime. But leaving murder aside for the moment, it always occurs to me that the average person’s home might fall somewhere in between those two descriptions, some of it tidy, some of it messy, but perhaps none of it easily yielding the information that most needs to be found by the person’s friends or family after her death.
And so, being a single woman, without any immediate family members still alive, I think about this. And also perhaps because I treat patients who are often dealing with life-threatening illnesses and injuries, I am often one of the people who is trying to sort out the basic information that my patient’s family and friends need in order to help them continue living or to facilitate their passage into death. And as often as not, this is not an easy process — at all — because most people never think about these things until it is urgent or even too late to do so.
Some not-so-random thoughts.
- How would anyone get into my house in the first place? Have I given a key to one or two friends in case of an emergency?
- Are the people who have keys listed somewhere as contact people in case of an emergency? Are they listed at the local hospital? Are they listed with my doctor? I know they’re in my cell phone, but do I have them written down somewhere in my wallet?
- Would someone take care of my cats?
- If I were merely unconscious, not dead, would someone be authorized to make medical decisions for me? [See Medical Power of Attorney info.] If I were in a coma or gravely injured, what would I want doctors to do or not do to keep me alive? [What is a living will and why do I need one]
- If I were dead, have I made out a good will? Does the person I’ve designated as the executor of my estate know how to find my will or at least my lawyer? [Making a Will]
- I have some life insurance through my job, but who is my beneficiary? How would someone get access to it? How would someone be able to get access to my bank accounts to help settle my estate? Do I need to designate a Durable Power of Attorney?
- What about my computer? Would someone know how to log on? Get to my email? Find my passwords so they could settle some of my accounts, pay the mortgage, pay the utility bills, keep the house going? Do I even have an organized file of my various passwords? [Organizing your passwords]
- How would someone let my friends know what was happening? Contact my Facebook and Twitter pals? My real-life pals? Do I have some sort of organized address or contact list? Is it printed out? [Organizing your computer]
- What would happen to my blog? What would happen to my art? [Your Digital Afterlife, How to leave your digital legacy]
- What kind of funeral do I want? Do I even want a funeral? Do I want to be buried or cremated or what? Do I want a memorial service of some kind? Do any of my friends know how I want to be remembered? [Practical help for planning your own funeral, My Wonderful Life website]
- How do I even begin to get organized about all this?? [Estate Planning Checklist]
These are not trivial issues, especially for a single woman who has no spouse, no significant other, no children, no close relatives. It is overwhelming and confusing to sort through all these questions, but now that I’ve had cancer, I know all too well that no one is immune from the need to think about them. Twice now, in the deaths of each of my parents, I’ve had to muddle through this stuff. In my job as a homecare clinician, I have seen what sorts of nightmares occur when these matters are not addressed, and how vastly beneficial it is for all concerned to have them resolved beforehand.
Now that I am finally beginning to feel more alive, more able to get my life back, more equal to the task of planning how I want to live, and hopeful that perhaps I may get to stick around for a while, I suppose I’m ready to consider how I want to die and how I’d like to be remembered. Above all, I love my friends and they love me, and I want to treat them kindly, especially when I leave them for good.
And I’d rather not leave them with a big mess on their hands.
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