Facing the Elephant in the Room: Planning for the End of Life
by Karla Combres
Death. Most people in Western cultures avoid the subject and are not comfortable talking about it in polite company. And yet, birth and death are the only guarantees in this life. While we have little input into our birth, we can anticipate death and, to some degree, help to influence our last living days and the way that we are remembered by our loved ones.
Still, approximately 80 percent of Canadians do not have advance care directives (also known as a living will). If you’re like most people, you may not have legally appointed someone to make health care decisions for you, based on your wishes, if you cannot. Have you thought about what kinds of treatments or interventions you would want or not want? If you had the choice, would you rather spend your final days in your own home, or in hospital? Does your family know what your wishes are?
End of life planning goes beyond questions of medical treatments to include your choices with regard to organ donation, the management and distribution of your estate, and what you would like to happen after you die.
Setting end-of-life directives and planning your
memorial may seem morbid or self-centred, but it is
actually a thoughtful and selfless exercise that
will benefit you and your next-of-kin.
There are many advantages to preparing for death. Studies have shown that patients who have planned in advance for the end of their lives spend less time in hospital, receive fewer intensive treatments, and enjoy greater quality of life in their final days. Furthermore, it spares their loved ones who are left behind much agonizing over hard decisions. Surviving relatives are reported to experience less stress and depression when their deceased loved one has expressed their wishes and put a plan in place.
We all know that the best time for end-of-life discussions and planning is before a crisis occurs, but most of us are afraid to broach the subject and face our mortality. As a part of a growing movement to normalize death, the Saskatoon Unitarians are taking steps to help address and demystify the elephant in the room.
In November, the Saskatoon Unitarians will host a public workshop to help people prepare their advance health care directives and plan their own memorial service or celebration of life. This will be your opportunity to start planning for the end of your life on your own terms in a comfortable setting. At the workshop, we will explore the basic topics for advance care planning, such as: Who would you like to be your substitute decision-maker? What is the information that your loved ones will need in case of life-threatening illness or death? Who is your power of attorney? Your executor? Who are the guardians for your children? What are your choices for resuscitation and health care treatments?
Information will be provided on options for rites after death, such as a memorial, funeral, graveside, and scattering of ashes. Participants will explore what their values, beliefs, and wishes are around end-of-life. They will consider where a memorial service or funeral will be held, who will deliver a eulogy, and who will lead and participate in the service. They will start to identify their preferences around music, readings or rituals to be included, or acknowledgements to be made. Also important will be the opportunity that participants will have to note anything specifically not to be included in the service, and address any sensitivities in the family. They will begin recording the details of their personal history, so that their story can be told in a way that reflects who they really were and the life they have lived.
By exploring what their values, beliefs, and wishes are around end of life, workshop participants will be able to personalize their ceremony, ensuring it is truly a reflection of their life and best qualities. Unitarian lay chaplain, Pam Fichtner, will be on hand at the workshop to explain how she can help create and lead a memorial service that is meaningful, creative, and specific to your needs, whether that be spiritual or secular.
Setting end-of-life directives and planning your memorial may seem morbid or self-centred, but it is actually a thoughtful and selfless exercise that will benefit you and your next-of-kin. When dealing with profound loss and grief over the death of a loved one, no one wants to be burdened with sorting through their personal papers to find legal documents, important contact details, and other information that will be needed at this critical time. With your affairs in order and your personal stamp on your memorial ceremony, your loved ones will instead be able to focus on saying farewell, expressing and processing their grief, and reaffirming your life and the things you stood for. Planning ahead makes sense. It will help you achieve some peace of mind and is one of the most important things you can do for your loved ones.
Spiritual traditions all over the world agree that death awareness makes life more meaningful. When you start preparing for your death, you also start examining your life more closely. Ultimately, end-of-life planning allows us to live our lives more fully. Attending the November workshop will help you on your journey to living life more consciously by approaching your death more consciously. Consider it a gift to yourself and to your loved ones.
Watch for details on the upcoming workshop in the next issue of WHOLifE. Details will also be posted on the Saskatoon Unitarians website: ucsaskatoon.org and on Facebook: Saskatoon Unitarians.
Karla Combres is a member of the Saskatoon Unitarians’ lay chaplaincy committee. She is passionate about building community and engaging in meaningful conversation. She is a Death Café host and volunteers with Prairie Hospice. She co-directs the Threshold Singers, who offer comforting a cappella songs to people who are on the threshold of living and dying. She is currently studying to become a Life-Cycle Celebrant.