Talking about death and dying is not typically a top choice for dinner conversation; in fact, almost any other topic seems easier to talk about. Understandably, thinking about death is unnerving. There are many uncertainties, and much that may feel out of our control. It is difficult to know when death will arrive or what it will be like for us, physically as well as emotionally. It is easier and more comfortable to avoid the topic, and after all, what’s the rush? Dying is hopefully a long way off.
Although there is a tendency to avoid addressing this seemingly heavy topic of death, it is also natural to muse over what we would like the end of our life to be like. For example, I think it is safe to say that most people want to be old when they die, but not so old that one lingers in poor health. And I suspect no one would object to the notion that death be a peaceful and painless process, and that when it does come, there is a chance to say goodbye to our loved ones.
On one hand is a desire to have death come at the right time and to be a certain way, and yet on the other hand there is so much out of our control. The good news is that there are simple, easy actions we can do now to increase the chances of leaving this earth in a manner consistent with our individual preferences. With a little effort, we can increase the chances of having some control over this very significant time of our life.
First, designate one or more loved ones as your “Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare,” which allows the people who know you best to be your spokesperson regarding medical decisions if you are not able to speak for yourself. Creating a DPA for Healthcare is a simple process that does not require a lawyer. The forms necessary to complete a DPA for Healthcare are readily available on the internet, and do not need to be notarized in Washington State.
Equally- if not more- important, talk to your loved ones about what is important to you.
The “Living Will,” popularized during the 1980s, attempts to spell out preferences regarding whether one would want prolonged life-support on a ventilator, or to be kept alive by nutrition delivered through a tube. I suggest not spending very much time on these subjects; most people don’t want to live out their remaining days kept alive by machines.
Instead, talk about what is truly important and meaningful to you; what makes your life worth living? Think about what gives you joy, and tell your Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care about these values. For example, an avid reader’s life may become less meaningful if they cannot read, or an outdoorsman may not want to carry on if the natural world cannot be experienced.
Similarly, help your loved ones by sharing what would give you peace during the dying process. For example, the type of music, the presence of nature, certain visitors or foods may be very important to you, and can help create the environment for leaving this life in the best possible way. It is these kinds of preferences that guide your loved ones in honoring you as a unique individual.
Talking about death may feel overwhelming, but I suspect talking about what you love does not. Try approaching death and dying from this different angle: what gives your life meaning? What is important to you? What is worth fighting for, and when would you want to call it quits? It may be just the perfect topic to chat about over dinner.
Listen to Dr. John’s podcast on Hospice and Advance Directives, with Dr. Kevin Martin.