Young parents and grandparents alike have asked me about various issues related to wills, living wills, long-term healthcare and arrangements for death.
For example, one grandmother says, “For the life of me I cannot get my husband to talk about his wishes regarding his death and remains. Even though we’re only in our early 70s, I think we need to talk about it.” A young parent writes about her mother-in-law’s serious stroke, “The good thing is that she has a medical surrogate and a living will…Luckily we have a doctor in the family and all the paperwork in hand since emotions are running high and different siblings feel differently. It is truly a blessing to not put the burden on the children of what to do.”
The key word to both situations is burden, meaning a load, a weight, an encumbrance. When parents/grandparents do not deal with making their wishes known regarding medical care they want, do not want, or their end-of-life and post-death preferences, they create unnecessary burdens on their children and grandchildren. We can waste time talking about all the reasons these important issues do not get addressed – they are uncomfortable, they are reminders of one’s mortality, they’re anxiety provoking – but to avoid them is simply, and please forgive me for scolding, irresponsible.
We’ve all heard of situations in which family members are gathered around a beloved family member arguing about whether to begin or continue use of life-prolonging technology or to have a questionable operation done. Then there are the family squabbles about cremation versus traditional burial or to have a religious service or a non-religious event. All of this stress and strain on family members is avoidable.
To the grandmother above who wants to address these issues but her husband is unwilling, I say: be responsible and make your own arrangements, without the involvement of your husband. Your husband can do his own explaining to family members why he thinks it is okay to dump all these important decisions on them. (Sadly, he’s not alone in procrastinating or avoiding, as 57 percent of adults in the United States do not have even a will!)
For those parents/grandparents who need to get their affairs in order, working with a lawyer is an obvious option, but for those who prefer to take care of their legal documents themselves before getting a lawyer involved, there are several commercial sites that can help store and sort relevant documents and accounts, including organizemyaffairs.com, estatedocsorganizer.com, legacylocker.com, aftersteps.com and safeboxfinancial.com (fees ranging from $14.95 to $59.95 to purchase the documents).
Another Web site worth checking out was started by Chanel Reynolds, a young mom who lost her husband to a tragic accident and found herself totally unprepared to deal with any of the legal aftermath. Her site can be found under http://getyourxxxxtogether.org/ with a not-so-nice, but very descriptive word where you see the four x’s. It provides free templates for wills, living wills, powers of attorney, death and burial planning. The site is well organized and easy to use, and to repeat: free.
In addition to getting one’s affairs in order, it is important to communicate with family members what legal arrangements have been addressed and how to act on them. Regarding their deaths, here is an e-mail that one set of grandparents, Sharon and Barry, sent:
Dear family and special friends,
We know, we know…talking about what you need to do if you happen to be with us when we die isn’t the most fun topic, but if you happen to be with either of us when we die (and we hope it’s not for a long time), all you have to do is call Marty at:
Marty’s Funeral Home
(complete address, phone, fax, e-mail and Web site information)
Marty Smith will know exactly what to do, as we finalized all the arrangements with him today. Doesn’t matter where we are in the world — just CALL MARTY, night or day, and he will take over, starting with our organ donations and harvesting, preparation of our remains, shipping, et cetera.
All decisions are made and everything is paid for. The only decision our children will have to deal with is when to have a party. We both want a party with lots of laughter, music, dancing, and good food.
You can skip the next two paragraphs if knowing what arrangements we’ve made is more detail than you need or want…
After thinking about it for about three minutes, Sharon decided she will be cremated and her ashes will be spread in the garden at Memorial Park. She has elected not to have any family or friends deal with her ashes in any way.
After much thought, deliberation and research, Barry is having a “green burial” which means he will not be cremated, nor will his remains receive any chemicals. Rather, he will be placed in a box of natural material and buried in a special cemetery with unmarked plots where he will become one with nature.
Barry’s way is Very Barry. Sharon’s way is, well, cheaper.
Just remember: when our time us up, Call Marty!
Sharon and Barry
As difficult as it was for some of the recipients to read this e-mail, it was important to Sharon and Barry that they take care of these important matters and give their children the peace of mind they deserved. After reading what became known as the Just-Call-Marty e-mail, Sharon’s dear friend wrote her: “Many cultures honor death in beautiful ways. Your preparedness for that part of life’s journey is commendable…You did a fabulous job of explaining it to us, with laughter a part of it… I know others may have been out of their comfort zone on reading it, but I would bet it opened up some hard conversations that needed addressing…I promise you that I will help the children plan the party.”
For one young mom the importance of grandparents having their last wishes in a legal format was driven home after the death of her mother-in-law: “…having people feel left out, or being forced to make decisions that the whole family is not completely on board for can destroy the remaining family forever once a loved one is gone, and that is a true tragedy!” Indeed.
Grandparents, make sure your affairs are in order. Doing so will be greatly appreciated by your children and grandchildren.
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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