Facing death, whether it is your own or a loved one, is often a little bit easier for everybody when you talk to someone about it before it happens.
In therapeutic terms, this is the concept that when you have an opportunity to anticipate the grief related to dying (anticipatory grief) you are often more emotionally prepared when death occurs. The last six months of my mother-in-law's life was filled with anticipatory grief as her family watched her sharp decline in mental and physical capacity. Marie's quality of life fell so far and so fast that it was very difficult to watch her enter into a condition that North Carolina's Advance Directive for a Natural Death (Living Will) describes as "I suffer from advanced dementia or other condition which results in the substantial loss of my cognitive ability and my health care providers determine that, to a high degree of medical certainty, this loss is not reversible."
At Marie's Celebration of Life, her pastor captured Marie's core personality when she described Marie as a woman who loved life, was full of spunk, and greeted everyone with a beautiful smile and a warm high-five. This describes the Marie I sat down with to talk about death. You see, many years ago, Marie asked me to draft a living will for her. When it comes to drafting legal documents about the end-of-life, you can't simply "fill in the blanks and notarize the signature," you have to enter into a deeply personal, scared, and privileged conversation about death.
On October 10, 2013, I had the opportunity to discuss the terms of Marie's Living Will with Tom, her beloved husband of 58 years. Marie's decisions about her death were a critical component in our conversation about inviting Hospice to help care for Marie. Tom wasn't ready to let go of Marie, or give up hope that she would remain in his life for a long time. As we discussed the realities of her condition and the many benefits of Hospice, Marie, through me, was able to help Tom prepare for her death because of the decisions she made in her living will and my recollection of the confidence in which she expressed her convictions about dying. Marie passed out of this life early the following morning.
As an attorney, I often tell clients that signing a Living Will is not only for their benefit - it is a gift to family members who feel conflicted about making end-of-life decisions. As a therapist, I realize the importance of this critical conversation and strive to help clients craft end-of-life documents that accurately reflect their decisions about how they want to pass out of this life into their next adventure.