The process of end-of-life planning matters because too many people in our country, especially seniors, are dying in ways they would never have wanted — tethered to machines, in impersonal ICUs or in nursing homes. In large part, this happens because they and their family members or health care agents could not discuss end-of-life planning ahead of time.
Yes, it is hard to talk about death ahead of time. When one is in good health, it feels unnecessary. But without such conversations, prolonged, medically challenged “futile care” endings can be hard to avoid.
“Maximum Longevity,” No Matter the Cost
In our current health care system, for many complex reasons the default tendency is maximum longevity and maximum treatment, no matter what the cost. And the cost is high — financially and to one’s quality of life and quality of death. Rather than letting the system decide, people must be empowered to make their own choices about how they die and empowered to talk openly about their choices.
In my 25 years as a chaplain to people living with HIV/AIDS, and 5 years as chaplain to cancer patients, I learned — in a very hands-on fashion — that individuals die better deaths when they are allowed and encouraged to talk to others about their dying. When I officially “retired” in 2008, I was determined to use my experiences to help others change their consciousness about end-of-life issues.
Speaking of Dying Workshops
As part of this work, I pioneered a workshop series called A Gift for Yourself and Your Loved Ones. The workshops consisted of four facilitated sessions, each a week apart. The sessions included sharing stories, learning about resources and reading articles, helping the participants begin to visualize what they wanted for their own death, and what planning was required to make that happen.
By the last session, many participants had filled out an Advanced Directive, including plans for their body and their memorial or funeral or celebration of life. They also shared their thoughts and plans with family and friends, and initiated conversations with their doctor or doctors.
Comforting and Liberating
“There is something very comforting and liberating about being in a group where you can talk openly about your own death and make plans before there is an emergency,“ one recent workshop participant commented afteward.
In the nine years since the workshops began, a few participants from the early workshops have died. Their children and friends subsequently emailed and called me to say how much the planning work helped them. One woman said that her mother had a peaceful and meaningful death, just like she wanted. And the family was grateful to know just what to do with her ashes, and what music she wanted at the ceremony.
Doing end-of-life-planning “upstream,” while you are still in good health, is truly a gift to yourself and to those you care about.