You might think the topic of death doesn't really belong in a column focused on engaging more deeply with the world. But I have discovered that facing death honestly and realistically frees us up to live more fully while we're alive.
The truth of this idea crystallized for me earlier this year. After more than 10 years together, my nonfiction book club has become a close, cohesive group in our mid 40s-early 70s. Some of our nearly 100 shared books have been about death and dying: When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi; Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande; A Year to Live by Stephen Levine; Knocking on Heaven's Door by Kate Butler; and on a much more humorous yet still-serious note, Stiff (about human cadavers) by the irreverent Mary Roach.
What arose from these reads was a joint decision to work together to foster accountability among each other in getting our "affairs" in order. You know: wills, financial and medical powers of attorney, online passwords, and all those things that if suddenly we were gone, are crucial to those we leave behind. For me, this process was all the more real because my brother died suddenly of a freak accident at age 47. Imagine waking up this morning...and not seeing the end of the day. What would you be leaving in and after your wake?
So we "bookies" worked together and separately over a few months, meeting periodically to check on progress, share insights, discuss resources, voice questions and concerns. We drew a line in the sand: by the date of our "Death over Dinner," we'd have everything completed, our papers and plans lined up. We ceremoniously toasted with Corpse Reviver drinks to recognize this milestone. And we shared how the process felt.
My favorite comments:
"It's as if we're all now packed and ready for the ultimate trip."
"Facing our deadline (um, no pun intended!?) is, for me, the reason it's all done. And having been able to expand and share our knowledge around what is sometimes a complex issue made it all the easier."
Before we had this group experience, I thought I had my "shit together," but discovered some gaps. Now I have a deep sense of relief and feel more settled because I have complete records on where everything is (important documents, safety deposit keys, passwords etc.) and all the paperwork is completely in order. I know that everything will be taken care of: my company and personal business handled. All my medical wishes honored should I become incapacitated. Treasured possessions given to loved ones according to my wishes. Even my cremation arranged via an innovative organization called People's Memorial.
Each of us invested about 4-5 hours apiece in this effort. But if you instead leave this important effort to those who survive you, they would face an almost inconceivable amount of guesswork, and frustration, on top of the pain of losing you. Should you not die quickly but require hospital, hospice or nursing home care, do you want these critical and deeply personal choices for your last days or years left up to others to decide?
We often don't make time for death, The Great Equalizer. But it WILL find us, ready or not. Spending a few hours now can save others days, weeks and months of heartache, and give you the best kind of life insurance money can't buy: a richer, more fulfilling and radiant life.
We found these links extremely valuable and affirming:
• Knocking on Heaven's Door, the bestselling book that inspired us to pursue this project
• Aging Deliberately website
• National Public Radio/KUOW series on having end-of-life conversations with loved ones
• End of Life Washington, with its thoroughly helpful website and documents that aid you in knowing the level of care you want at the end of life
• Video of "Debbie's Dying Wish-What Matters Most" from TV's Frontline program (8 minutes)
• The entire Frontline show, hosted by Atul Gawande, MD & author of Being Mortal
• Gyst, formerly Get your Shit Together, the wonderfully comprehensive death-planning website
• People's Memorial, for affordable burials and cremations
• Corpse Reviver Cocktail recipe ;)
What resources do you recommend to ease your mind around death? What sometimes gets in the way of your committing to getting your "affairs" in order? If you have gone through a similar process, how do you feel?