Last month, my family and I buried our father. His journey towards the end of his life reinforced lessons I learned from my mother’s final struggle with cancer and death nearly 19 years ago.
We are born. We live. We die.
That is a reality that we all share. But a lot of people I know talk about living and not so much about dying. Unless they talk about death in a religious or philosophical context, death is taboo, or at least is an uncomfortable topic. The mention of death is dismissed as morbid, rather than the liberating exercise that it could be. Many discuss quality of life – whether and how often they should exercise, what they should and should not eat, how they should avoid stress, and what job will not strangle their soul – yet stay away from talk of death. But no talk about life is complete without considering how one approaches the end.
Of course we don’t know when and how we will actually leave this world. But we can think about certain eventualities and how we and more importantly our family will deal with them. Do I have life insurance and is it sufficient? Do I have a will? In addition, we should also seriously ponder upon three other important questions.
The first is “What is our will?” If an accident results in us going into a vegetative state, what should our loved ones do? Do they keep us going even if we will forever be plugged into machines? Do they authorize surgeries just to keep our bodies going for one or two weeks longer? Do they donate our organs? Do they let us continue to exist even after we are reduced to less than the shell of the person we were?
The second is “Who decides for us if and when we become unable to do so?” This is especially important if you are in a relationship but are not married. You do not want your long-time partner shut out by family members for any reason. Please have the necessary legal documents to make sure your chosen representative, and no one else, is authorized to represent you.
The third is “How do we deal with serious illness?” Should we be faced with a serious medical condition, such as a terminal illness, what do we do? Do we undergo chemo, a series of surgeries, or experimental drugs or therapy? Do we waste valuable time and resources depriving ourselves of proper food and nutrients to follow a grueling detox program because some pseudo-science alternative medical entity tells us so, as my father had done out of desperation? Instead of being in a hospital, do we prefer to spend our last days in a beautiful, peaceful environment?
These are some of the things we should not be afraid to ask while we have the mental, physical and emotional objectivity and capacity. Once we are seriously sick, we become less objective and may clutch at straws in the false hope of prolonging our existence. If, due to bad circumstances, we end up in a coma, we certainly will not be in any position to make any decision.
By the way, I’m not saying we should not fight for our health and our life. We must fight. But at some point the nature of that fight changes, and we should be ready to accept and prepare ourselves and our loved ones for the inevitable. Instead of dying a shrunken, tired individual whose last weeks are spent in fear, pain, and suffering, we can choose to spend those weeks leaving behind better memories, ticking off the last things on our bucket list, or simply enjoying the sunset.
More importantly, by being prepared, we hope that we can spare our loved ones the difficulty of second-guessing us and the guilt that that may produce. No one wants to be seen as callous or unfeeling even if the most difficult decision to make is the right one. No one wants to do the right thing only to be riddled with guilt and self-doubt. Indecision, family wrangling (which thankfully my family did not face), fear, guilt, even shame – these are not the legacies with which you wish to burden the ones you love.