Death has been on my mind a lot lately. And I’m not the only one. It seems like a too many of my friends and family have been dealing with loss these days.
My grandma died this summer. She was 90 years old and we knew she didn’t have much longer, so it wasn’t a huge surprise. But even when the deceased person was elderly or sick, death is so permanent that it can still leave us unprepared. I wanted to share some things that have been helpful to me as I’ve been thinking about death. Some of them have to do with the practical side of things (the Head) and some have to with the emotional aspect (the Heart). Let’s start with the Head.
With my grandma, we were fortunate because she and my grandpa made burial plans before he died 10 years ago, so some of those logistics were already taken care of. And we had a vague idea of what she wanted in terms of a memorial service. But there are so many details and logistics that have to be dealt with by the closest family members who are also trying to grieve and process a huge loss. Is there a will? How do you access their bank and digital accounts? Do they want to be buried or cremated? Do they have life insurance? Will it cover the cost of a funeral? What kind of service would they want? Not only can it be frustrating to try to answer these questions, but it can be expensive if there aren’t clear answers.
In Bad with Money’s Death is F*ing expensive episode, Gaby talks to two friends about losing a parent as a young adult and what that looked like to take over financial responsibilities and more. They covered questions like: What can happen when there’s not a will? How do you pay a mortgage? What is probate? What does it mean to be the executor of a trust? How do you get access to accounts when you’re not listed a signer?
Gaby explains that she’s thought a lot about this scenario:
“Now you’ve crashed, head first, into being the person in charge of the mortgage, and the estate, and all the words that you don’t even know what they mean. I wanted to know what that would mean for me in the future…I wanted to make an episode that would embolden me, and hopefully you guys, to go to your parents and talk about these things before it all falls into your lap one day. Because we’re all fragile human bodies made of tissue paper. And you don’t want to be making this plan while you’re grieving, because it’s important, when you’re going through the actual thing, to do a lot of self care and to take care of yourself and to slow down and to really feel the grief and feelings. And you don’t want to have to be doing the practical stuff while you’re doing that. I’m gonna find out if my parents have a will. They probably do. It’s probably written on a napkin for some sports bar.”
There can also be plenty of questions about end-of-life care that come up once someone is no longer able to communicate. Do they want extreme measures taken to keep them alive? Do they want to be kept alive on machines? Feeding tubes? What about CPR? My grandma had to consider the fact that CPR often breaks ribs and whether or not it was worth it toward the end of her life. These are really unpleasant questions, but they are so important to discuss ahead of time so that family members aren’t left guessing and/or spending money on care that is unwanted.
Planet Money has a really great episode called The Town That Loves Death about this exact issue. Almost everyone in the town of La Crosse, Wisconsin has answered these questions and completed an advance directive. They’ve normalized the conversation about death and dying. And not only does this lift the burden of decision-making from family members, but it also saves money. About ¼ of health care spending is on the last year of life and much of this spending is for care that may be unnecessary or unwanted, but the patient did not make their wishes known in writing before they were unable to communicate. Many people aren’t ready to make decisions initially, but the more they talk about it, the more comfortable they get with the idea. They realize it’s not fair to make their family deal with it. But it’s also important to discuss with family ahead of time so they aren’t blindsided if, for example, a DNR (do not resuscitate) is signed.
The point I’m trying to make is this: We need to talk about these things. We need to be prepared, even if we’re young and healthy. Things happen. And when you don’t have anything in writing, the process becomes much more complicated and expensive for your loved ones.
Fortunately, there are tools to help get us started. Websites like GYST, Tomorrow, or Willing provide checklists and even facilitate actual documents. I’m going to check them out and let you know what I find, but don’t let that stop you from getting started now! I also think this website is helpful in listing the specific steps that take place after someone dies – ranging from a legal death pronouncement to notifying friends* to the probate process and more.
And for those who may be wondering, I want as many organs (tissue, etc) donated as possible. (Get registered as an organ donor here!) And I don’t want an expensive burial. I’d rather have my ashes planted with a tree like this or this.
Stay tuned for Death and Dying: The Heart.
*When my grandma died, we had to find a way to notify her friends and extended family. People she kept in touch with, but who didn’t necessarily need a phone call from one of her kids. So I drafted a letter. And that was weird, but also a really neat experience as we heard back from people with thoughtful notes or stories about her.