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November 14, 2015

There is something that will happen to all of us, something we often don't want to think or talk about until it's too late. The fact is, we are all going to die. Not a popular topic.

I have been blessed all my life to do work that I love. One of my favorite jobs was as the Spiritual Care Director of a Hospice, a place where people go to die with dignity and comfort. I loved companioning the dying in their final days and hours, and learned so much from them about what matters and what doesn't. Not one of them was afraid of death itself. They did have other concerns: "What will happen to my wife/husband when I'm gone?", "Will I have much pain and suffering?", "What will I be remembered for?" They also had regrets, such as long-standing feuds or estrangement from family members. James talked often about his brother, to whom he had not spoken in twenty years. "I hardly remember what we fought about originally, but I wonder if he would ever forgive me?" Forgiveness is one of the main virtues that arises at the end of life. What do I need to be forgiven for and what do I need to forgive? I encouraged James to reach out to his brother, and the two were lovingly reunited before he died.

Here in the islands, most people are surrounded by family, who care for them at home until the end of life. One thing that all families need to do, in my opinion, is to have "the conversation" about end of life care. To do this, we need to have the courage to be truthful about something that is not easy to talk about. It takes courage to bring up a truth that can awaken grief. What better way to share our grief and our hopes than with the ones we love? Here are 5 questions to explore:

  1. The person I want to be my primary care-giver. Who will make medical care decisions when I can't? If at all possible it is best for each of us to be cared for by someone we trust, even if not our closest family member. In North America and other countries, people sign medical power of attorney forms naming someone they trust to make medical choices when they can't. If more than one family member is caring for a person, the rest need to follow the lead of the primary caregiver, or there can be too much chaos for the dying person.
  2. What medical care do I want or not want when my time comes? How do I want to be treated? In our islands it's a question of whether we want to be flown off to New Zealand for as much medical care as possible, or let nature take its course while being kept as comfortable as possible with good pain management. In other countries, people sign a Do Not Resuscitate form to keep from being hooked up to machines and kept artificially alive. Others want to receive every possible treatment to keep them alive as long as possible.
  3. Last wishes. Do I want a minister to pray beside me, or to see my children one last time, or have a certain kind of music playing? Where do I want to be buried, or if cremated, what I would like done with my ashes? Do we have any special requests about our funeral?
  4. What do I want done with my property? It is a great gift to the living to have clear instructions about how money, belongings, or land is to be distributed. A simple will signed in the presence of a lawyer or Justice of the Peace is a very important document.
  5. What do I want my loved ones to know? While still in our right minds, it's a great kindness to write letters or speak to loved ones and let them know what we appreciate about them. My Dad's last words to my brothers and me, words he had never told us before, are a treasured memory.

Having this conversation, hard as it may be, is one of the greatest gifts we can ever give to someone we love.


Author photo
Linda Kavelin-Popov

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