“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. …What a wild, and rough, and stubborn wood this was, which in my thought renews the fear!” ― Dante, The Divine Comedy
Many years ago, I was recently graduated, newly married, and stationed in Germany. After an 11-month separation, my lieutenant husband had finished his training in the U.S. and would be joining me.
On Monday of that week, my brother called: “Mom fell out of bed. She’s in the hospital.”
Two days later: “She’s in the ICU. Doctors aren’t sure what’s going on.”
By Friday: “Her organs are failing. She’s not going to make it.”
In a matter of five days, my mother’s “back problems” (apparently a cover story for a slew of underlying health issues) led to her death. After receiving the official Red Cross death notification, we arranged emergency leave, and headed back to the States. Maybe you’ve been shocked by the sudden death of a loved one. Perhaps you remember the visceral, churning feelings: disbelief, dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea.
We arrived in the U.S., jet-lagged and emotionally devastated. Forget bereavement – a short timeline forced us into decision-making mode. So many details to handle: a funeral to plan, a burial to arrange, belongings to claim. Bills clogged the mailbox, incomprehensible invoices competing with condolence messages. A steady stream of expenses for doctors, hospital, funeral. When we finally located my parents’ checkbook, their bank account was overdrawn. As the ones who had money, my husband and I paid bills.
My mother’s death wasn’t the first that I remember, but it was the first for which I had decision-making and financial responsibilities. And forty years later, my memories are still a complicated mess of grief, discombobulation, and frustration.
The feeling of being ambushed lingers. I’ve since discovered that my experiences are typical. With subsequent family deaths and watching how patients and families react and cope made me realize the universality – and insanity – of being surprised by and unprepared for death. A death often brings shock and crisis, but it’s not a surprise. A family will usually pull together to solve the immediate problem, forgetting that this wakeup call will happen again. It’s as if someone runs head-first into a wall and expects to not get hurt—repeatedly. Whether it’s crashing into something or dying, doing the same thing and expecting different results is irrational. The first step to changing behavior is being aware. If we admit that life ends, we can be ready for when that time comes. Because the time will come.
Death may be sudden; it will probably be devastating; but it’s not unexpected. Hope is a hoax, not a method. Choosing to not see, hear, or speak about reality doesn’t make for a great planning strategy. Unless your crystal ball is calibrated for accurate predictions, the wiser course of action would be to plan ahead. It’s possible to wait. Maybe the timing will be such that you’re ready on D-Day-minus-one, whether that’s the day before you die or when pre-departure decline impairs decision-making capacity. We nod along with Mark Twain’s sentiment: “I know that everyone dies, but I always thought an exception would be made in my case.” Our date with destiny is coming, even though we don’t know exactly when, given humans’ unfortunate lack of a warning beep or light signaling a low tank or battery.
When we drive, we don’t expect an accident, but it might happen. So prudent people buckle a seatbelt after climbing in the car. You never know. That’s the approach Good Goodbyes advocates with life preparations. Be ready. Because just-in-time may be a little-too-late.
To do or not to do, that is your choice. It’s not enough to be AWARE. You have to take steps to PREPARE, building a bridge from awareness to action. Tomorrow isn’t promised.[i] Don’t just live for today; think about the impact a sudden exit would have on others.
The Prepare section will guide you through practicalities. It’s hands-on and intended to encourage you to get started. The next seven chapters and the one-page Legacy Map document (Appendix A) will give you the lay of the land and walk you through the “getting affairs in order” steps. Each chapter introduces opportunities to learn, reflect, and act. Learn provides background information – what you need to know before you go. Reflect has questions to inspire an examination of values. And finally, Act. Given the possibilities and your preferences, decide and document. If autonomy, another word for freedom, is important, you need to let others know in advance what you’d want in certain circumstances. Act on your good intentions.
Fortune telling skills may be fun, just don’t rely on magical thinking as a planning strategy. As you read the Prepare section, take what you need and ignore what you don’t. Do the work, because preparation is a gift for yourself and your survivors. Gathering the information your loved ones will need, clarifying your preferences, and mapping the location of your treasures is a lasting legacy. Proper Prior Planning Prevents Prolonged Pain.
© Joan S Grey, 5 March 2021 ∞
IndexCardCure™: “A Labor of Love” from Good Goodbyes
This is the beginning of the introduction to the Prepare section Good Goodbyes: A Mortal’s Guide to Life. To be continued…
Stay tuned for other chapters.
[i] Thanks to Anne Murphy for this gem.