This month I have been invited by the Edmonton Community Foundation to give a lunchtime talk to lawyers, notaries and accountants during “Wills Week”. The topic is Talking the Fear Out of Death.
I have long held that our society is a bit life-obsessed and that too few of us are willing to have realistic discussions about end of life issues with family and care-givers. We are reluctant to plan or our dying…and when we don’t plan, we give up control.
To be clear, I am not talking about assisted dying here. That’s a different topic that statistically affects about 0.5% of the population where it’s legal. No, I am discussing ‘natural dying’.
Many of us think it would be wonderful to quickly and painlessly drop dead. Statistically that’s highly unlikely. Frankly, medicine has just gotten too good at keeping us alive. Dr. Peter Saul of New Zealand suggests that 4 out of 10 people who make the age of 80 will die of fragility, things like complications from a broken hip or a fall. Most of the other 6 in 10 will die from the kinds of slow organ failures that will cause repeated hospital visits until finally someone says, “That’s enough.”
And if you think cancer or something like it might get you, Dr. Saul says, “Terminal illness is the province of the young.” Cancer may be a factor in deaths in older folks, but it’s seldom the cause.
Given then, that the numbers suggest we will have time, we are therefore given the opportunity to
decide how we will face death’s slow approach. But very few of us do. In part it’s a conspiracy in which medicine is complicit.
Dr. Saul did some research among medical colleagues and learned that virtually none of them initiate “How would you like to prepare of dying?” conversations. Instead the focus is on squeezing the last drops out of living. We end up leaving our fates in the hands of those whose job is to keep us alive.
Living till you die and planning to die well are not antithetical concepts. But planning your death requires that you think about it, and that you share your thoughts with the people who matter most to you. Where would you like to live? How would you like your affairs to be managed? By whom? Who will decide for you if you become unable to communicate? Will they carry out your wishes?
We have so many taboos often because people are afraid they might say the wrong thing, or because they are afraid of facing a world without you in it. But how much more comforting will it be when they realize that they were the ones who helped you the most in your last days? And you have the power to break a lot of those taboos by starting the conversation boldly with a clear statement like, “I am dying… not today and not tomorrow but in the foreseeable future. I want to die on my terms and I need you to help me prepare and manage that time.”
And that can be a wonderful gift. Dr. Saul says, “How we die is the important bit. How we die lives in the minds of the people who loved us.” You might not decide to choose the day you die, but you can choose how you will manage yourself in the face of dying. That strikes me as a wonderful thing.
Here’s a link to some excellent planning documents: http://www. goodendoflife.com
For more information on Wills Week visit http://www.ecfoundation.org/initiatives/wills-week
When it’s my turn, I want to go out on my terms.
See you in Church!