“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone” . - Pablo Picasso
A year and a half after my husbands death I have finally finished the “business” of his estate. I received an email this week for the final tax bill. Reading it my heart sank, another $10,000. This, after paying $90,000 in taxes the year before. What a waste. He worked so damn hard for that money, but he was a procrastinator. He had cancer for 6 years, and we knew death was close when he decided to say “no” to further treatment which is often worse than the disease itself. His body was worn out, it was time to stop. He was given a few months left to live. And yet knowing this, his estate was not in order.
Death can be scary, it can motivate some to get things done. It can stop others in their tracks. Don was stuck and could not bring himself to finish what needed to be done.
Three months before his death, he was in the hospital to change his pain medications. He woke up on a Monday morning expecting to go home but instead his lungs were filled with liquid. They were not sure what it was, cancer going wild? phenomena? His goals of care were at C1 (all care is directed at maximal symptom control and maintenance of function without cure or control of an underlying condition that is expected to cause eventual death). The palliative doctor said they could try to do a number of tests to determine what it was, but the outcome would be the same… death was close. Did he want the doctor to continue exploring the cause? “No”, he said quietly. The next day he was moved to a palliative room with little hope of leaving the hospital.
Critical questions began to emerge. Where is the will? What about the investments? Where is the life insurance policy? How about his daughter?" Looking back, he must have been ashamed when he had to tell me it was not in order. He had not followed through on our conversations and I made a huge assumption he had. Things were outdated and unorganized.
I could feel the heat rising from within, I was overwhelmed with fury. “After all of this time, 6 years of cancer, knowing he was going to die and he did not have his affairs in order. What the h**l.” I left the room as I did not want him to see my rage. I texted our friend who was a lawyer, “Michelle I need your help….”.
Within a few days, and after a lot of franticness, his estate was somewhat aligned with his wishes. It was not perfect. After he died I was left managing the numerous loose ends. 2019 was not an easy year. My grief was peppered with resentment, and the practice of “loving what is” was not easy. It was so unnecessary.
Having clear choices and decisions made, helps reduce the anxiety around death. It invites space for presence and connection as you near the end-of-life and relationships often improve because of these honest, bold conversations.
Don and I had many bold conversations. Where we made our mistake was not following through on the actions. Accountability helps to manage procrastination.
When I was a child my sisters and I would play hide and seek. I remember sitting in the middle of the living room, eyes squeezed shut thinking that if I could not see them they could not see me. I was always the first one caught. Closing my eyes to my sisters is no different than closing my eyes to death. It will always find me. Lack of being prepared is not necessary and it places a significant burden on those left behind.
Don’s journey with cancer and his death have taught me a great deal. Although my teacher is gone the teaching has not. Here are a few steps that you can take to avoid the costly price of procrastination.
STEP 1: Acknowledge that this is difficult
End of life planning and talking about death is not easy. Cry together and acknowledge that it is difficult, and then muster up the courage and make a date for the conversation.
STEP 2: Plan to have the conversation, not just once but a number of times
This is not a conversation to bring up in the middle of Sunday night dinner, that might feel as though a bomb just went off. Instead, plan for it, make a date in the calendar, have a glass of wine or a cup of tea together. Better yet, have a dinner party. Knowing that this is difficult, create a space where you are able to show up and be present. Phones off, paper and pen in hand, and most importantly, breathe.
Don’t get caught in the illusion that one conversation will be enough. Keep talking. We constantly change our minds. Continually check in, and explore if things have changed.
STEP 3: Listen and ask questions
There are many resources available that can help plan and guide the conversation: online resources, advanced care planning tools and of course professionals (lawyers, accountants, financial advisors, death doulas, conversation hosts). Use as many tools as needed to move the conversation forward. Listen to each other, ask questions and refrain from judgement. Each conversation should end with everyone leaving with action items, deadlines and the next meeting set.
STEP 4: Take the conversation beyond the will
Ones will, personal directive and power of attorney are essential end-of-life documents. You would be surprised though how many more items are called for. For example, Don and I had both been divorced, I needed our divorce certificates in order to probate the will. And the personal directive, well that is a very general document. He and I had walked through it very carefully to clarify what the terms meant to him. There are many things to consider beyond end-of-life documents, make sure everything is included in the conversation.
STEP 5: If needed, ask for help
If it seems daunting to have this conversation, ask for help. Family dynamics can make these conversations emotional and conflict can arise. Having a third party present, someone outside of the family arena, can be very useful. This support often increases the likelihood that you will reach greater understanding, have actionable decisions in place and save a great deal of time, energy and money.