We need to ask, because one at a time these questions aren't that scary. Uncomfortable, sure. But not scary, especially when the people we love are well enough, and alive enough, to answer them. We need to ask and answer these questions like our lives and livelihoods depend on it.
I am saying this as one of the lucky ones. Mom gave pretty clear instructions for her end-of-life care and funeral wishes. She kept pretty detailed records, so I've been able to sleuth my way through her financial loose ends like a sleepless, stressed out, greasy-haired, puffy-eyed, cracked-out-on-coffee Nancy Drew. She owned shit, which means eventually I'll own shit. Which is a good thing, I think? See? So many questions.
Everyone knows the no-brainers. I'll start there, then fan out to a level that will make your head spin. Who likes a spinning head? No one! Which is why, I think, people don't "go there" until it's too late. Go there, people. Ask your parents. Ask your siblings. Ask yourself.
To Resuscitate or Not to Resuscitate?
The Obvious: It seems simple enough. A form with the acronym DNR and a little box you check or not. My mom checked DNR. She also was adamant about being at home rather than at a hospital. It all sounded so peaceful. She was ready to go when it was her time.
The Obscure: Her "time" dragged on for 6 days. Nearly a week of gagging, choking, starving organ failure. She was on morphine around the clock, so I hope she wasn't in pain. But there were times she seemed highly uncomfortable. I wish so badly for her sake and for ours that we knew more about both her options and her wishes. Maybe there was something available to accelerate the process? If so, would she have wanted it? After so many days, would she have been more comfortable in a hospital with medical professionals who could give her proper care?
Forget every movie you ever watched where a dying character peacefully slips away after saying their last graceful words. Sometimes that shit is long and drawn out and ugly. Don't make your sad, exhausted family members guess what you might have wanted. Think of the DNR form as the beginning of a conversation rather than a final punctuation.
What Should We Do With Your Body?
The Obvious: Another seemingly easy door number 1 or door number 2 question. Bury or cremate? But wait there's more:
-Which mortuary should we use? How much is it?
-What kind of casket/urn do you want? How much is it? (Helpful hint - Costco for the win)
-Where do you want to be buried or scattered or stored? Is it legal? (Yep, there are rules and laws about all of it). Do they have availability or a pre-purchase option? How much is it?
-Graveside service? Hall rental? Food? Music? Eulogy? HOW MUCH IS IT?
Am I suggesting people should be responsible for planning and paying for their own death? Pretty much. I know it's a lot to think about, and it's kind of weird, but it will take so much of the guesswork out of it for the people you leave behind. When we were planning my mom's funeral, two questions crossed my mind on an hourly basis: 'Is this what mom would have wanted?' and 'How the holy hell am I going to be able to pay for all this?' Sure, every family and culture has rituals and traditions, so in some ways you might think everyone just knows how to do your death. As far as money's concerned, maybe you don't have the means to pre-pay for your own funeral or memorial. (I know I don't). But the financial conversation is worth having. If you and your loved ones have at least an idea of how much everything will cost, you can begin to plan and save together. Unless you're afraid your relatives will Dateline you, I recommend starting a separate bank account in the names of you and whomever will be responsible for arranging your end of life events. It can take months and months for death benefits and inheritance to be sorted out, but that funeral home will need money within a matter of hours. Don't let credit card debt be the thing your loved ones remember you by.
Do you have a Will?
The Obvious: Wills are great. Everyone should have one. Mom had one, and it was pretty cut and dry. My uncle was the executor (meaning he could make decisions on her behalf if she was unable). My sister and I were the beneficiaries. Not a ton of property, no debt, no squabbling siblings. Easy peasy, right? Wrong.
The Obscure: Bills don't stop just because someone dies. Due dates and invoices come in like clockwork. Who's going to pay? And with what money? My sister and I were lucky mom had enough in her account to float expenses for mortgage, etc. while we waited several months for some retirement money to come our way. Now that money is floating us while we wait (and wait and wait and wait and wait) for her condo to go through probate court. Don't get me started on the pointless money-sucking scam that is probate court. It's been 6 months and we still don't "technically" own the property we inherited. But we inherited those bills immediately.
PLAN FOR THIS! Is it possible to transfer ownership or add names to titles while you're alive? (Again, trusting enough in your family not to Dateline you is key in this scenario). Maybe that joint funeral fund can also include a savings for interim property expenses. What about the contents of the property? If Aunt so and so gave you that dresser, do you want them to have it back? Does that chipped China set stay in the family or go to Goodwill? In this mountain of stuff, what is significant to you? What is significant to other people? What has monetary value? What has sentimental value?
Can You Just Not Die?
The Obvious: Nope. It's happening.
The Obscure: Maybe you have so much money, these matters just take care of themselves with the help of family lawyers. Maybe you have next to nothing so there's no need to worry about any of it. Most of us probably fall somewhere in the middle. I encourage you to examine what is complicated and what is simple about your family's situation. As much as these questions may stir up uncomfortable conversations and maybe even terrible arguments, they will more likely help you learn about family history, build communication skills, heal old wounds, and foster a sense of compassion and respect for loved ones and strangers alike.
Get ready Dad, I'm coming for you. You too, Audrie. Haley, let's do this.