I lost my father and several friends in the last three years, and as a result, I've learned some important things. None of us wants to think about our own deaths, so preparing for that day is something most of us do not want to do. Attending funerals and memorial services can jolt us in the reality that any day, it could be us. When that happens, have we done what we need to do to protect the people closest to us who will be left behind? Are our spouses, our children, or are partners prepared to make important decisions on our behalf, and have we given them clear instructions for doing so? Is it fair to ask them to make those difficult decisions at the height of their pain and grief? What can we do now as a last act of love to help ease their pain when we are gone?
Before my father died, his wishes were pretty clear. He wanted to die at home, and to be cremated, or to be buried in the least expensive way possible in his casual clothes (he did not "want a fuss made over" him). He wanted to make sure my mother and my youngest sister were cared for, and that they would always have the home where my parents raised their large family. Dad and I had many discussions about his end-of-life wishes as well; under no circumstances did he want to be kept alive and in pain. If choices needed to be made between prolonging his life and reducing his pain, he wanted us to err on the side of reducing his pain. Because Dad spelled everything out clearly, we were allowed to concentrate on being with him during his last days and weeks as he fought cancer, rather than worry about "What are we going to do?"
In the end, Dad's instruction "Above all, make your mother happy," meant some of his wishes were not honored exactly. Dad died pain-free in a Hospice Center at the nearby hospital, not at home (hospice care at home was too much for my mother emotionally), surrounded by his children and many of his grandchildren. He was buried in a suit (a recent Father's Day gift from one of his children, who would be the one to oversee his funeral plot and visit it regularly). We did make a fuss over him, too -- we had a big "Celebration of Life" in his honor -- to do otherwise would have robbed his wife, his nine children and his many grandchildren the opportunity to honor the legacy of someone we deeply loved and admired. It also gave us the opportunity to weep, to grieve and then to remember him in a way that made us grateful he had been such a big part of our lives. In the end, Dad's instruction to defer to my mother's wishes on the "negotiable stuff" helped us make those difficult decisions in a way that honored what we loved most about my father -- he loved his family more than anything else.
Two dear friends also died since my father died. The timing of their deaths was unexpected, and their families suffered a great deal as a result. While still in shock, many decisions had to be made, and there were a number of people involved in making them. I recall a very emotional morning as children cried for their mother, while the telephone rang and people came in and out of the house, while a discussion between adults went something like this:
"Did she have life insurance, a will, or funeral plans?"
Distraught spouse: "I don't know."
"Where do you keep your important records?"
Distraught spouse: "In the safe".
"Where are the keys to the safe?"
Distraught spouse: "I don't know."
"Would any of those documents be on her computer?"
Distraught spouse: "Maybe. I don't know her password."
And later in regard to inviting her co-workers, clients and colleagues:
Distraught spouse: "I don't know her co-workers very well. All of their numbers are on the computer, I guess."
That particular family had a great deal of loving support from family and friends, but they were unprepared. In the midst of her school-aged children choosing clothing for her funeral, a locksmith was trying to break into the family safe. In the end, they had a lovely memorial service for their Wife/Mother, and the financial and emotional steps to recovery started to fall into place. I couldn't help but think if my friend knew how close she was to her death, she would have prepared for it to save her family such pain and confusion. My friend was one of the most giving and generous people I've ever known. Clearly, she did not imagine what her death could do to her family in the short-term.
Every adult, regardless of age and level of health, should discuss basic end-of-life decisions with the people they love. If you have an accident or become very ill, do you want to be on life support equipment? For how long? Who will decide? When you are close to death, where do you want to be -- in a hospital, a hospice or at home? If giving you pain medication shortens your life expectancy, are you OK with that?
In addition to leaving a financial Will and important documents in a place where family members can easily find them, your funeral plans will need to be found first. Does everyone you live with know where you keep them, and is the location easily accessible? Do you want to be cremated or buried? If buried, where? If cremated, who should keep your remains, or should they be scattered? Where? Do you want a memorial service, a simple graveside service with close family, or a large "Celebration of Life" party? If so, where? Do you have favorite songs, readings or quotes you want to share with the mourners who love you? Have you created an Ethical Will?
Funerals costs can be managed sensibly if plans are made long before they are needed. By pre-planning your funeral and paying for it ahead of time (many mortuaries offer payment plans over an extended period of time using an insurance product or funeral trust), you can save your family many hours agonizing over your wishes and how to pay for them. Funeral pre-planning can lock in the price of goods and services at today's prices, saving you and your family thousands of dollars. Funeral pre-planning insurance policies are portable, meaning, if the mortuary goes out of business, or if you move, your family can still use the policy elsewhere, as well. The money is effectively held in escrow until the time it is needed.
And last, if you would outlive your money and need Medicaid funds to pay for long-term care, an irrevocable funeral pre-plan is a legitimate "spend down" item. The funeral plan is safe, and those funds are not held against you in the asset calculations needed to qualify for benefits.
I am deeply grateful to my father for telling us about how he wanted things to go at the end of his life. Because he did, we knew exactly what to do each time we were given choices to make on his behalf in the hospital, then in the hospice, then at the funeral home. When presented with unanticipated circumstances (like my mother wanting the full-time support services being at a hospice center provides), we knew his values so well we were able to compromise in a way we felt he still would have been happy.
My parents have given me many gifts throughout my lifetime - the gifts of life, food, shelter, love, education, and family. In the end, my dad's last gift was the gift he gave me after he died - we were able to focus on our grief, loving each other through many painful hours, and reflecting on how we would best honor his legacy -- rather than having to worry about the costs and decisions associated with his funeral. Dad -- wherever you are -- thank you for that final gift of love. I love you, too!