Tip/Thought of the Day

On Death and Dying


It’s not a topic anyone wants to actually talk about. For some it seems ghoulish to discuss until we’re forced to by circumstances. But it’s a part of life. A reality we all have to deal sooner or later. If we ignore its inevitability and refuse to plan, sorrow and grief can be overwhelming, forcing us to make necessary decisions under unimaginable duress.

Being prepared is important, not just to spare your loved ones, but to ensure your wishes are known and followed. When my mother passed away, I was shocked at the predators who circled us at every turn, demanding answer to questions we weren’t prepared to answer. At a time of severe emotional distress, we were told,
“If you loved your mother you’ll give her the best casket, service, send off. . .”
It would have been easy to be pressured into doing almost anything. Apparently, this is not an uncommon experience. The idea that people who deal with death every day could be so horrifyingly cruel was despicable.

I was in medical school when my father’s health started to decline. He chose to sit me down and tell me what his wishes were for any future care he might require. It was a painful and difficult discussion to have with my Dad. But when he finally needed me to follow his guidelines, I was thankful he had the foresight to tell me himself.

Declining health, disability, death are all scary topics and not subjects any of us want to talk about, let alone deal with, but leaving those decisions to loved ones isn’t fair. They need to know what medical choices you’d want them to make – whether all interventions should be taken to save their life if a catastrophic event occurs and when to let them go. How to deal with financial consequences. These preparations can help us to get through the most traumatic moments in our life.

Here’s a few items to get in order:

  • Power of attorney. This gives whoever you name the power to make financial and legal decisions if you become incapacitated.
  • Medical power of attorney. This ensures the person you choose has the right to make health decisions on your behalf.
  • Will, living will, trusts, etc. Legal documents defining who receives your assets (beneficiaries) after you pass, defines who will raise your children and designates which person will manage the property (an executor) until its final distribution.
  • Advanced medical directives. These are advance directives that let healthcare providers and loved ones know your wishes if you can’t voice them. It can include a DNR (do not resuscitate orders), what type of interventions you want, whether you will be an organ donor.

Make sure whoever will be taking over your affairs knows where important documents are located.

  • Bank statements (you can add the name of the beneficiary to any account, so they have access to funds immediately instead of waiting until probate has finalized.
  • Titles on houses, cars
  • Life insurance
  • Appraisals on any expensive assets e.g. fine arts, jewelry

I am not an attorney. I’m often involved in signing along with a patient paperwork that ensures they were able to understand what a DO NOT RESUSCITATE order means. I don’t mean to give legal advice. But too often I’ve seen the emotional toll it takes on family when their desires are not written down. Get legal advice to ensure documents you sign and prepare are legal, complete and no one can argue with your wishes.

My sister went to Oklahoma for a specific surgery on her heart. It went terribly wrong. In the end she was comatose. As an attorney she had written an ironclad will with detailed medical directives. She took a heartbreaking decision out of our hands. As much as the hospital tried to ignore her wishes to be disconnected from any and all life support mechanism that may be artificially keeping her alive, they were finally forced to comply. She passed away peacefully in seconds. Without that document she could have been hooked up to machines indefinitely.

When my aunt got terminal breast cancer years later, I begged her to sit down and talk about these issues. My mother was horrified and angry I could be so callous. But I had seen far too many people, both personally and professionally, not prepare. Ignorance is not bliss.

They refused.

My aunt suffered and so did all her loved ones when the decisions were ultimately decided by others.

Before each and every surgery I update my paperwork to ensure my daughter and family would never be burdened with these questions.

Death is a topic we all want to ignore. But being prepared can give peace and comfort to the one who has passed and those left behind.

1 thought on “On Death and Dying”

  1. Thank you Dr. Courtney for this great advice. It definitely will help down the road with my mother when that time comes.

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