Exit Strategy

Singular Concerns

It’s a lovely, peaceful evening. I’ve just finished a large bowl of homemade, post-Thanksgiving turkey soup. Now I’m sipping a cup of my favorite tea while gnawing on a piece of almond-studded, chocolate buttercrunch, and it’s just shy of nineteen days until Christmas. The radio is playing softly in the background. In such circumstances, I can scarcely help but feel thoughtfully philosophical. So, like any normal single woman who has thus far managed to outlast a diagnosis of cancer, I’m thinking of death.

I’ve been thinking of death quite actively for a few weeks now, specifically my own. No, I haven’t had any bad health news lately. And aside from the half-dozen maniacal drivers I encountered in a certain town last Sunday as I was navigating my way to a patient’s home, I haven’t had any recent, near-death experiences either. My house is warm and cozy, the mortgage is paid for another month, and I’m taking a week off right after New Year’s. One might say, if one were so inclined, that I haven’t a care in the world. One would be wrong to assume that, but it would be a forgivable assumption. So perhaps this is exactly the right sort of moment — calm, lacking in panic, nourishing of unvarnished perspective — to be thinking of my death.

I had hopes when I planned this post that I would do lots of practical, Amazonian-style research about estate planning, and hospice care, and advanced directives, and so forth, and explain it all to you as is my wont. But I haven’t quite gotten to that sort of mindset yet. I’m still in the mulling, information-gathering stage.

I’m rather fond of reading murder mysteries, which I admit has perhaps prompted me to think about things that normal people don’t ponder on a daily basis. And since I’m also fond of writing, I admit that various sorts of plot lines and opening paragraphs for my own potential contribution to the genre float through my neurons from time to time. And it’s always interesting to me how the mystery author describes the inevitable scene that occurs after the dead body has been found and identified, and the investigator-protagonist finds her or himself in the deceased’s home and begins to try to put some kind of mental biography together as an aid to figuring out why anyone should want to knock off the deceased in the first place.

This leads me to wonder, with a sort of morbid fascination, what someone would surmise about me from my immediate surroundings, should I suddenly and unexpectedly leave this mortal coil. In mystery novels, there seem to be two main descriptive categories of the deceased’s home. One is that it is suspiciously tidy and impersonal and therefore woefully lacking in clues. The other is that it is found to have been ransacked by someone else, presumably the murderer, before the investigator-protagonist arrives, thus leaving behind rather too many clues, but perhaps missing the very ones the investigator needs to solve the crime. But leaving murder aside for the moment, it always occurs to me that the average person’s home might fall somewhere in between those two descriptions, some of it tidy, some of it messy, but perhaps none of it easily yielding the information that most needs to be found by the person’s friends or family after her death.

And so, being a single woman, without any immediate family members still alive, I think about this. And also perhaps because I treat patients who are often dealing with life-threatening illnesses and injuries, I am often one of the people who is trying to sort out the basic information that my patient’s family and friends need in order to help them continue living or to facilitate their passage into death. And as often as not, this is not an easy process — at all — because most people never think about these things until it is urgent or even too late to do so.

Some not-so-random thoughts.

  • How would anyone get into my house in the first place? Have I given a key to one or two friends in case of an emergency?
  • Are the people who have keys listed somewhere as contact people in case of an emergency? Are they listed at the local hospital? Are they listed with my doctor? I know they’re in my cell phone, but do I have them written down somewhere in my wallet?
  • Would someone take care of my cats?
  • If I were merely unconscious, not dead, would someone be authorized to make medical decisions for me? [See Medical Power of Attorney info.] If I were in a coma or gravely injured, what would I want doctors to do or not do to keep me alive? [What is a living will and why do I need one]
  • If I were dead, have I made out a good will? Does the person I’ve designated as the executor of my estate know how to find my will or at least my lawyer? [Making a Will]
  • I have some life insurance through my job, but who is my beneficiary? How would someone get access to it? How would someone be able to get access to my bank accounts to help settle my estate? Do I need to designate a Durable Power of Attorney?
  • What about my computer? Would someone know how to log on? Get to my email? Find my passwords so they could settle some of my accounts, pay the mortgage, pay the utility bills, keep the house going? Do I even have an organized file of my various passwords? [Organizing your passwords]
  • How would someone let my friends know what was happening? Contact my Facebook and Twitter pals? My real-life pals? Do I have some sort of organized address or contact list? Is it printed out? [Organizing your computer]
  • What would happen to my blog? What would happen to my art? [Your Digital Afterlife, How to leave your digital legacy]
  • What kind of funeral do I want? Do I even want a funeral? Do I want to be buried or cremated or what? Do I want a memorial service of some kind? Do any of my friends know how I want to be remembered? [Practical help for planning your own funeral, My Wonderful Life website]
  • How do I even begin to get organized about all this?? [Estate Planning Checklist]

These are not trivial issues, especially for a single woman who has no spouse, no significant other, no children, no close relatives. It is overwhelming and confusing to sort through all these questions, but now that I’ve had cancer, I know all too well that no one is immune from the need to think about them. Twice now, in the deaths of each of my parents, I’ve had to muddle through this stuff. In my job as a homecare clinician, I have seen what sorts of nightmares occur when these matters are not addressed, and how vastly beneficial it is for all concerned to have them resolved beforehand.

Now that I am finally beginning to feel more alive, more able to get my life back, more equal to the task of planning how I want to live, and hopeful that perhaps I may get to stick around for a while, I suppose I’m ready to consider how I want to die and how I’d like to be remembered. Above all, I love my friends and they love me, and I want to treat them kindly, especially when I leave them for good.

And I’d rather not leave them with a big mess on their hands.

Please click on the post title or the comment link below to post a response.

This entry was written by Kathi, posted on Tuesday, December 06, 2011 at 02:12 pm, filed under Nitty Gritty and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

14 Responses to “Exit Strategy”

  1. Kathi, good blog. I have done some of these, but not all. Now I know what to do next. I am …beergirl on breastcancer.org.

  2. Brilliant post Amazon. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about this stuff too. Not morbidly, but as a practical matter. Even though I have a hubby, he doesn’t know where anything is or pay the bills etc so how is he going to know unless I tell him? I think we do need to deal with this stuff whilst we still can have some control. I’d like some say in my funeral as well. Not that I think it’s imminent of course, but cancer does have the nasty habit of putting these things to the forefront of our minds. I’ll be coming back to tis post in due course. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Having had to deal with what you speak, because of multiple close calls, I had some things in order. But they are never in order enough for those left behind. So I need to reassess what’s left. There is a lot to think about and it should all be written down…and in an appropriate place for the executors to find (as well as having a copy beforehand). It’s a hard subject to bring up, but, I have made cremation arrangements, so the hardest part is settled. They can sing, celebrate, cast my ashes to the winds…that should be a big enough decision when the time comes. It’s one of those “eat, drink, and be merry” things and I’ll be happy!

  4. Hi, Barbra! I’m sure I’ll think of more things as I go along, so I’ll definitely write an updated post.

    Susanne, I hope you’re going to be around for a long while yet, but if you go before I do, I will certainly eat, drink and be merry in your honor, and if I go before you, I’ll expect you do to the same. xoxo

    Thanks, Rach. When you start thinking of all this, you realize how many little, simple things you’ve forgotten or taken for granted. The only way to make sure it’s all straightened out & that our peeps can find it all is to write it all down — and update it regularly. As it happens, last night I also just read the latest two posts by Alright Tit, which broke my heart, and just underscored the need to write this. You know she’s going to make some fantastic, ironic, humorous and poignant plans for all this. I just wish her final horizon was a lot further away. ๐Ÿ™

  5. We just went through all this with my mother’s passing two weeks ago. We thought we were well prepared but there are some things I regret not asking her when she could answer me… Mostly about past photos. I have been going through her old photos and there are family members who are obvious by their features but I have no idea who they are. How I wish we had taken the time to write on the back of the photos a few significant details so that I could follow up with our geneology. The faces are there but the names are lost… ๐Ÿ™

  6. Oh, yes, photos! I had a similar experience, Tara. My aunt has filled in some blanks, but I wish I learned more from my parents about all their old pix before they died. Such a tough process this all was with my mom’s death. Hugs to you.

  7. After I was diagnosed I was terrified I was going to die and leave a complicated mess behind. So my (now) husband and I canceled our upcoming wedding and eloped at the courthouse. I figured that was a good first step to protect him (we had just bought a house) and prevent a long and tangled experience with probate or something. Soon after, we bought a will-making computer program and drew up living wills, end-of-life plans, funeral arrangements, etc. for both of us. Then I updated all my documents through work to reflect my husband as beneficiary. Doing all this gave me a sense of control in an otherwise complicated and scary time and prompted important conversations (that you would never think you’d have to have at 32) with my loved ones. I’m glad to read here that many of us are taking the necessary steps to protect ourselves and those we care about. Hopefully we won’t have to worry about death and dying for many, many years to come.

  8. Good work, Praelior! But I really hate hearing about yet another young woman diagnosed with cancer, and shortly before/after getting married as well. Seems like I’ve heard way too many of those stories lately. I hope you have been NED for a while now & that you stay that way.

    I’m working on some of this as I type, in fact. And yes, it really does make you feel much more secure to have these things taken care of. And yes, hopefully they won’t be needed for many years yet.

  9. Kathi,
    This is such an important post. People don’t like to face death issues at all and I must admit, I never thought much about my own death til cancer came calling. You have given some really practical advice and links here. I now know where to come when I start seriously tackling this stuff. There I go procrastinating again already!! Thanks for writing this. Lord knows it’s needed.

  10. Such an important set of questions to think about and act upon, both for practical reasons and for deep insight.

    I often re-read the book, “When Things Fall Apart,” and I found myself thinking about it again as I read your post. Pema Chodron writes: “Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives.” Even those moments when we decide to update our beneficiaries, make a will, organize our passwords, share our emergency contacts…simply act pro-actively. These acts provide a vehicle for thinking more deeply about what they really mean. Our movement out of this world. Fathom that.

  11. Thank you, Nancy. It is quite a project, but it really makes you feel good as you work through all the tasks involved.

    Gayle, what a beautiful commet. We don’t ‘do’ death in this culture as well as we ought to, and that has enormous implications in the healthcare system. Perhaps because I experienced the deaths of people I cared about when I was a child, and later, as an adult, I’ve had the privilege of working with so many hospice patients, I’ve come to see what a generous, brave, loving thing it is to address all these questions, and be mindful about what they mean. Aside from any material estate one might bequeath, to leave behind a clear set of clues, wishes and instructions is an opportunity to give one’s family and friends one final and beautiful gift. And it matters hugely to those one leaves behind.

  12. Another provocative and thoughtful post, Kathi…thank you!

    I have always marveled at how each of us approaches our death, and wish more people could see it as a gift. After all, we mourn greatly when we are surprised by the loss of a loved one; being able to think, plan, prepare and, in due course, to say our good byes.

    I have plenty of my own work yet to do, believe me! Got started the first round with cancer, and became immortal once again. However, I’ve found that there is an added challenge to do this kind of work with a young son and a husband who most assuredly don’t want to deal with it!

  13. Really good list Kathi, seems to be in the air at the moment. We’re just preparing a review/blog of a great book that’s come out in the UK called ‘End of Life, the essential guide to caring’ by Mary Jordan and Judy Carole Kauffman. As you say, the peaceful spirit of early, dark, twinkly nights seems to bring on thoughts of our mortality. Maybe ‘another year ending’ kind of feeling?

  14. […] book. Many of the more practical of which were also recently covered in Accidental Amazon’s ‘Exit Strategy’ post, on her […]

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