I decided this week to write about what we never talk about. And that is how we want to die. I know, it’s morbid to even think about, never mind talk about. But, I also think that’s the point. For something we’re all going to experience sooner or later, it seems to me it shouldn’t be so taboo or scary to talk about. Especially with our loved ones.
Maybe because I now have more years behind me than ahead, it’s a topic that’s been on my mind. Both my parents have long passed away. My father was only 64 years young when he died. Now that I just turned 62, I’m coming up to the age at which he left his family behind. It’s made me curious about how I’ll feel when I’m older than he was when he died.
Until recently, I’ve always kept my age under wraps. While it wasn’t a secret, I never volunteered the number. If asked, I was good at being evasive. Now that I’m coming up to the age of my dad’s death, I realize it will be an immense privilege to live longer than he did. And I should not waste it worrying about how old I am.
My dad also spent the final 2 years of his life in the hospital after suffering a stroke. He was mentally aware but couldn’t communicate and was completely immobile. I don’t want to live like that in my final years.
That’s where I think it’s important to have a conversation about death and dying with your loved ones, the ones who will be there with you right to the end. The ones who will have to attend to your funeral arrangements and what’s going to happen to all your stuff.
2 different experiences
I have 2 very different experiences to draw on. My father who had made no arrangements because he was so young and suffered the stroke suddenly and unexpectedly. He was a sole proprietor who ran his own business for more than 40 years. Even though my sister worked right along side him, everything was in his name only. So when he passed, all assets were frozen. It was an extremely tough couple of years for my mom and my sister until his estate could be settled and the assets released.
My mom, on the other hand, because of the experience with my dad, put everything in her daughters’ names long before she needed to. She arranged and paid for all her funeral arrangements right down to the music that was played. It really was a blessing for me and my sisters. We didn’t have to make any decisions in our time of grief. Everything was exactly as our mom had wished.
However, we didn’t find this out until after she had passed. In looking back, we were all in total denial when my mom became gravely ill. The last time I saw her, I was certain I would see her again in a couple of months when I went home for Christmas. There was no doubt in my mind even though there was barely anything left of her. She was just skin and bone and having so much difficulty breathing. She was ready to go and we couldn’t see it.
Now, I wish we had been more open minded and ready for her passing. I believe my final visit with her would have been very different. I could have let her know it was okay to die. We could have had a conversation about what mattered.
This has led me to have conversations with my eldest sister. She’s 12 years older than me so will most likely go before me. I want to know exactly what she wants in her final years and days, and what type of service she would like to have. Thankfully, she is open to this and we’ve had several conversations. I find it comforting.
And this in turn has led me to wanting to have the same conversation with my 18 year old daughter. After mentioning this to my sister, we decided we could chat with her together. I was nervous about it because what teenager wants to talk with their mom and aunt about death and dying.
I almost sabotaged it by waiting until the last hour before she was heading back to school. Much to my surprise, she piped up and said she wanted to have the conversation. I was relieved to hear this and hope there will be many more to come.
What I’m afraid of
I don’t believe I’m afraid of dying. However, I am afraid of pain and suffering. I’m also afraid of wasting away in a nursing home. If I have to be kept alive on a machine, then let me go. If I’m suffering and in pain, then I would like to leave this world. I would like to live at home as long as possible and then go to a hospice if need be. My wish is to be cremated and my ashes spread somewhere TBD. I want my daughter to know all of this.
When the time comes, I would like to have meaningful and thoughtful conversations with her. I know it will be a time of sadness but I also want it to be a time of joy. I hope we can express our love, our hopes and dreams, our lessons learned, our wisdom, our lives well-lived, and laugh about the mistakes we made along the way. And, I hope she can pass the same on to her children.
A funeral is not on my wish list but a celebration of life is. A video or photo display would be lovely. I would like people to see who has been part of my life and what I have accomplished during my short time on this earth. I would like family and friends to share their stories and memories with one another.
Part of life
The conversation went surprisingly well. Although the subject was serious, we kept it lighthearted. We all shared a good laugh, when I said I didn’t want her to be sad but I still wanted her to cry. Not a lot but I still want her to shed some tears and then be at peace with the time we shared together.
I want these conversations about death and dying to be a normal part of our life. Much the same as her adoption is. People have often asked me, “Does she know she’s adopted? How did you tell her?” This always makes me chuckle inside because she’s never not known. We’ve talked about her adoption from the time we brought her home as a baby. It’s not a big deal because it’s simply part of who she is.
The same thing goes with dying. It’s part of our life. Mind you, the very last part. At least in physical form on this earth. And well, that’s a whole other topic.
Until next time,
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Colleen, your column really resonated with me. I feel exactly the same way. I wish more people were comfortable talking about this.
Yes, Pat! A topic for our next coffee date. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
A most beautiful column. I know it’s a touchy subject, but I do wish that more people would be open to talk about it. It would solve so many problems after one passes that could have been dealt with before.
Susan, thanks so much for your kind words. What you’ve said is exactly why I decided to share my thoughts. It’s a part of life, there’s no escaping it so we should be more open to talking about it.
Thanks for this Colleen..
I have no problem talking about anything related to death and dying but I cannot believe how many people find it taboo.
Or are superstitious, feeling that talking about it is courting disaster.
It’s part of life.
Thanks for your comment, Eleanor. Yes, I agree, it is a taboo subject for many people even though as you said, it’s part of life…a guaranteed part of life.
Thanks so much for sharing this Colleen. It is something my sister and I have been discussing in regards to our aging parents. Unfortunately, they don’t to seem to want to talk about it and have made no plans themselves thus far. Both my sister and I have chronic disabilities, so we are worried that when the time comes and they pass on, we may not be in any shape to make arrangements quickly. Anyway, all this is to say, not having the end of life discussion with your loved ones, is still decision on how you want your end of life and post-death arrangements to happen.
Nancy, I hear what you’re saying. And you’re absolutely right, not having the end of life discussion is still making a decision. It’s a choice. It’s good that you and your sister are having the discussion and I hope your parents come around with your encouragement. It’s probably one, if not the most, difficult thing for families to deal with.
Hi, Colleen. Your post really resonated with me. I too have had the discussion with my children and hope they will respect my DNR should the need arise. My father did not respect my mother’s and she lived for 8 more years locked in her body which was horrible. She had her mind but could do none of the things that brought her joy.
My aunt was the first one in the family to choose an assisted death when she found out at 97 that she had stage 4 cancer. I am happy she made this decision to leave this dimension on her own terms. I believe I will do the same if I become too much of a burden or am in uncontrollable pain. In general, I think we treat animals better than we treat humans.
Elizabeth, this post seems to be resonating with many people. It’s obviously a topic that is on people’s minds. You’re right, I think we often treat our pets better than we treat other humans. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
I totally agree with everything you have written so beautifully here Colleen. I also wish we would normalize talking openly to young children about death. My children experienced the death of both of their grandfathers and my good friend when they were quite young. This brought the inevitable question, “Are you going to die?” I told them that yes I am going to die one day. We all do. Then I told them that I hope it will be when I am old and they are all grown up. I talked to them about all of the things I do to take care of myself so that I have a better chance of living a long and healthy life. Oh, they said. And that was that. No freak out. No nightmares. They just took it in and moved on. In my opinion that’s the way it should be. I blogged about this if you’re interested.
Marie, thanks for sharing your experience talking with your kids about death and dying. I had a similar conversation with my daughter when she was 6 and I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I agree the conversation needs to be normalized for all ages. I would love to read your blog.
Regardless of how you want to die, you should discuss what you want done when you pass. When my parents passed away all I knew is that they wanted to be cremated. Did they want a funeral or a celebration of life?
What did they want done with their ashes? If they want them scattered , where exactly? What type of urn? What should be written on the tombstone? There are so many questions left unanswered.
I’ve already had some discussions with my friends and executors . Now I just need to update my will and have a discussion with Beechwood Cemetery. I’ve already looked into MAID.
I think this would make a great topic for a discussion group.
I agree, Giselle. There are so many decisions to make when a loved one dies. It’s great you’ve had discussions with your friends and executors. We did have a coffee shop chat on Normalizing Conversations About End of Life a couple of years ago. Perhaps it’s time to have another one in-person this time.