I believe the kindest, most thoughtful thing anyone can do for their loved ones is to get their house in order. My mother was supremely organized. Before she died, she had everything I could possibly need in an accordion folder; she showed me where it was and reviewed everything with me. I remember being somewhat uncomfortable, and kept saying Mom you’re not going to die. What was I thinking? But you know why; I didn’t want to talk about it or think about it. She had a much more realistic view of her time left than I did, and had confronted her own mortality. So she blazed the path for me. And even with all that done, when she died I was still at sea. It is very hard at that point in time to think straight. Everyone – but especially those of us with a terminal diagnosis – needs to get this paperwork done. Here is what I put in my little accordion folder for my loved ones:
My will. A copy to my executor, a copy to my children, a copy in my safe deposit box. You might also consider an ethical will. To understand their purpose, read the wikipedia article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethical_will or check out www.ethicalwill.com
My Advanced Directive. This gives instructions to my physician and my relatives regarding what treatments I want and don’t want if I am unable to speak for myself. I filed mine with my medical records department but I’m in an HMO. If I wasn’t in an HMO, I would probably give a copy to my doctor. These forms are available online or generally through your physician. If you get a copy from your physician, this is probably a wonderful time to get his input and insight into what the directives will mean in real time. I talked with a nurse and an ER doctor before I made my final decisions, because I was unclear about what some of the questions really meant.
I love the advanced directive titled The Five Wishes. It’s wonderfully written and gives a person much to think about and help with how to look at the decisions you are making, rather than the dryish legal type document legal in my state (the Five Wishes is not legal in my state). I used it to give me ideas of what I wanted to include in my advanced directive. If you would like to read it, you can find a copy here:
Power of Attorney/Medical Power of Attorney. I have yet to fill one of these out, even though I know at some point I will need one. I want to consult an attorney for this one before I sign, as the directives give others rights over your life; I wouldn’t do this one on my own without advice, that’s for sure. They are used when you are unable to make your own decisions; they grant someone you select the right to make decisions for you about your financial, legal or medical situations. These forms differ from state to state.
Banking/Credit Card List. I made a list of all my bank accounts with their numbers; my safe deposit box, detailing number, location and where the key is; all credit cards by account number and location of cards. You should also consider listing all your online presence and think about how your family will be able to open your accounts. There are way too many stories of families trying to remove a Facebook account without success.
Birth and Marriage Certificates. I have copies of all my certificates in my accordion folder. They might not be needed, but who knows. I’d like the people coming after me to have everything they need without having to search.
Life Insurance Policies. I made copies of mine but I could have easily just made a list of policies and locations of the policies.
Addresses of all the people who need to be notified of my death. The list includes Social Security, car insurance, etc. and all my friends and relatives. I made mine up on the computer and included an email list. When my mom died, I went through her address book and wrote letters to all the people in there. It was a big task but I still don’t know if I would have used email if it was available. It seems pretty abrupt to notify someone that way. I remain on the fence about this one. But it will be up to the people who follow me to decide that.
My wishes for after-death care. After death is no time for my husband and children to try and remember what I wanted or to make these hard decisions; I took pity on them and told them what I wanted. Cremation, green burial, ashes at sea, what? I realized I needed to write down what I wanted. I have prepaid my cremation so those papers are in the folder with the phone number to call. This is what my Mom did and it worked so smoothly, she made it so very easy for me. Thinking through what I wanted and then having that conversation with my loved ones was hard. It was probably hard for them too, though they struggled to be brave. But I think it will save everyone tons of grief down the road.
Personal papers. For instance, I put a genealogy chart in my accordion file. My kids were never much interested in it, but I figure some day they might be. I’m beginning to write letters to each of the people I love, a special goodbye from me. I hope it will give them a happy surprise, somewhere down the line.
Memorial/Funeral. I set aside some money, got together with a friend who has a big place and preplanned my memorial (don’t want a funeral). I put all the music I wanted to be played on two CDs. I asked a friend to lead whatever speaking there would be. I want people to laugh and cry and celebrate my passing at a big potluck. I want them to remember me with smiles on their faces. But that’s just me. Everyone is different. I know some people who want a big casket, a huge funeral and a memorial. Others don’t want anything. I’ll just add here that from personal experience, doing nothing can be hard on the survivors. Probably most people think they are sparing their loved ones. But my Dad died, my mom had him cremated and ashes dumped at sea, the house completely cleaned up before I got home after his death. It was as if he had never been there (I know my Mom was trying to spare me). It was not good for me. I felt a little adrift, as if I didn’t know what to feel. I wouldn’t chose that for my loved ones. But as I say, everyone is different.
Those were my basics. For a really good guide (better than mine) to taking care of business, I found this site extraordinarily helpful:
Written by Chanel Reynolds, a woman who was left with no instructions and no knowledge of where anything was after the death of her husband, she knows first hand how hard this is without help. Here’s a little video of her explaining why she built her site (which is all free by the way – as of this writing):
Her site is thorough. It was a good review for me and probably a wonderful starting place before seeing an attorney. For instance, it never crossed my mind to know my husband’s phone password. But without that, I wouldn’t be able to access his phone contacts.
I came across this site just recently and wish it had been there for me before I had “the talk” with my family. If it’s going to be hard talking with your loved ones about death and afterwards, or if you’re having trouble yourself, this site may be extremely helpful in getting started and can help you get beyond that first step.
They have what’s called a Starter Kit that is free. Invaluable help.
If you choose to do any of this, I wish you the best of luck during this process. I know it is difficult; a sad and difficult gift to give those you love. But it will be a gift, if not now, someday.