April started off with the phone call I’d been afraid was coming for the last few years. I could barely hear my brother over the street noise telling me our dad had just died. We were surprised it happened so suddenly, we’d say over the coming weeks. It was also a shock and huge relief how much easier it was this time. It was a night and day difference, I said to my mom. She agreed.
“Instead of being terrified and overwhelmed like you were, I feel like I am in control.”Mom
With a small suitcase full of yoga clothes and flip flops meant for 80 degree weather and a freshly-acquired stomach bug I was on a last minute flight to below-freezing Minneapolis. One anti nausea pill, two Imodium tablets, and twenty-four hours later I was in brother’s car on my way to my
parent’s mother’s house – he was holding his hand when he died. It was sudden. He seemed peaceful.
April Fool’s day was spent doing paperwork for my father’s cremation, looking for urns, making calls, sifting through boxes of old pictures, and offering, then procrastinating, writing his obituary. In the first week it’s usually a lot – a LOT – of phone calls, and we did those: funeral director, ordering death certificates, notified the VA, Social Security, a quick audit of bank accounts and checked the balances, etc. Right up to National Health Care Decisions Day mid-month we were still getting a few state-of-the-state phone calls and appointments set before I was able to return to updating my own documents.
Having basic stuff done in advance made those required tasks after his death easier. I couldn’t help but compare it to when my late husband died in an accident in 2009 and I was still swimming in the same tasks that would take me several months, thousands of dollars, and at least 50 more phone calls to complete.
Why? Of course, that was a decade ago and every death is different, individual, personal. And, my parents got their shit together and being more organized, in advance, had already saved my mother a mountain of the ‘optional’ administrative shit-show I dealt with.
It is night and day. What in particular made a difference for our family this past month? A few big things like having the legal stuff like a will and power of attorney done. My dad also had completed an Advance Care Directive (ACD or also called a living will) and a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) thanks to a meeting with Palliative care suggested by one of his doctors.
“It’s comforting, rather than terrifying or exhausting, to do these things.”Mom
How did it help? We knew he did not want to be intubated but would welcome other, less invasive, assistance. We knew which medications he was taking, treatments he was getting and those he did not want, and the names of his doctors and specialists. We knew whether he wanted to be home or elsewhere, and if or when it was necessary, we knew what quality of life meant to him and what his priorities were.
We could answer all their questions. We could tell them what he wanted.
The medical team asked, honored, and entirely respected his wishes and instructions.
The few hours after someone dies are often blurry, acute, time-stamped and underwater flashes.
Then you go home.
But, I want to talk to you about what made a difference and urge you to do them, too.
My Parent’s (and I) Got Our Shit Together: What Made a Difference
1. Advance Care Directive (ACD): Also called a living will – everyone 18 and up should have one. In my experience, is nearly impossible to describe how overwhelmingly helpful and reassuring it was to have had these conversations and information – in advance. My late husband and I drafted ours and my father took the five extra minutes needed to sign his and specify some additional care he did and did not want. We are grateful. We feel relieved. We do not feel guilty.
2. Do Not Resuscitate (DNR): Not everyone has one and some are reluctant to really go there if or when the conversation and document shifts from the more abstract or ‘one day what-if’ scenarios. Have a look at one and see what it is, if you are navigating a serious illness or progressing medical situation perhaps you or your family will be relieved to have one, too.
3. Your Will: My parent’s each wrote one and my brother and I each had a copy. You’ll need it *after* someone dies, but knowing it is done, complete, legally correct, and where it is means no one has to worry about it.
4. Death Care (What happens to your body): My dad wanted to be cremated and also wrote some instructions for what (and where) we should do next. Easy.
5. Death Care (Who takes care of your body): Who comes to get your person, moves and touches them is a big deal. You will have to have at least a few, if not dozens, of conversations with your funeral director and likely who they work with or for. If they suck or you don’t like them or the way they talk to you that will most likely make a hard time even harder on you or at the very least be extra fucking irritating when you have exactly zero extra fucks to give (as the saying goes). The funeral home we chose was absolutely incredible, lovely, helpful, and amazing. It matters.
- There are more options than you may realize now: Independent funeral directors, recomposition, aquamation, green or natural burial, death doulas provide care before and after a death, you can most likely bring your person home for a few days, you can have a home funeral, embalming is not required, you can view or witness the cremation, there are still small, family run funeral professionals.
6. Your List of Important Accounts: I come from people who love lists. Whether your round-up is online, kept in a digital vault or password manager, or you keep it old school and analog – you need to know where you money and important accounts are and how to access them. You DO NOT want to wonder where your stuff is and spend dozens of hours digging through storage tubs searching. This household ‘treasure hunt’ really sucks and often things remain adrift for too long or stay missing forever.
7. Emergency Plan: After my late husband died and I became a solo parent I had at least two-levels of childcare back-ups plans for pretty much every single day. If something happens and you need to get on a plane or go out of town in a few hours – you need some back up plans:
Extra key to your home, childcare pickup and drop offs, pet care, caregiving backup plans, emergency phone lists, etc. Whatever your life needs to keep the trains running on time, or at least not start crashing, get a few things together now – your future self will thank you.
8. Emergency Fund: I needed to find a flight and get to my family asap. An emergency fund with some cash available or a credit card with room on it to book a flight or pay for whatever throws at you makes a huge difference. For many people having an emergency fund is nearly impossible. Do what you can to save for a ‘rainy-day’ or start an “oh shit” emergency fund.
There are still a number of things to do and a lot of paperwork to complete, it takes an average of 13 months to complete the process of winding down someone’s estate when they have a will – it takes almost twice as long to go through the probate process when you don’t have a will. More on that later.
For now, it’s one month after my father’s death and because my parents had planned in advance that we know what to do and are less worried about ‘everything else’ right now. It feels less scary to miss him and be sad.