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Planning for the death of a loved one

10 March 2016

Author Jane Duncan Rogers writes honest and perceptive articles and books about the hardest topic of all - facing up to the death of a loved one. Here, she shares her practical tips for preparing for the death of a loved one.

Jane and Philip
Jane and Philip on holiday at the Chateau de Chinon, in The Loire, France, in the year before he was diagnosed with cancer.

Three months before my husband died, I received an email from a good friend. “Here’s a list of questions you absolutely must get answered before Philip dies. It will make your life a lot easier afterwards”. 

I scanned over the questions; they were not easy ones to answer if you know you are dying sooner rather than later.

Still, I told Philip about them and one Saturday morning. He gave in to my pestering and we sat up in bed together, with the laptop, and created what was to be our final project together.

Amazingly, we had a good time answering things such as ‘what do you want your body to be dressed in?’, ‘what sort of things do you want in your memorial service?’ and ‘when does the car need attention, and what should I do?’

Very practical, and all making it impossible to ignore the fact that he might not be here much longer. (At that stage, of course, we had no idea how long, although we suspected it would be months rather than years).

That Saturday morning ended up with us feeling incredibly loving and connected with each other – a slightly macabre way of doing it perhaps, but wonderful nonetheless.

Related: comforting a bereaved child.

The List

In 2014, a survey commissioned by Dying Matters found that while 70% of the British public are comfortable talking about death, hardly any of them had actually discussed their wishes with anyone, or put any plans in place. So, for example, even though most people (67%) express a wish to die at home, in fact more people die in hospitals than any other place these days.

However, if your wishes are known and written down in advance, this can significantly affect the conditions of your end of life care.

This is what happened with me and Philip. Our friend was right; I was really grateful we had answered that long list of questions, both right before he died and especially afterwards.

Now, four years on, with my book Gifted By Grief: A True Story of Cancer, Loss and Rebirth published in the autumn of 2015, and a chapter in that book dedicated to The List, I’m amazed that these questions are the one thing that stand out for most readers. So here’s just a few of them, so you can see what you need to take care of.

  • What kind of coffin do you want? Open or closed?
  • How do you want your body to be dressed?
  • How do you want your social media accounts to be dealt with?
  • Where would you like to be when you die, and who do you want around you in your last days?
  • Have you got an Advanced Directive (Living Will)?
  • Have you itemized any special belongings you’d like to go to special people?
  • Does your partner know about the operation of the burglar alarm, the washing machine, the heating controls?
  • Are you the possessor of any family secrets that you don’t want disclosed? If there is evidence of these, have you disposed of it?

If you’re in a couple, try the Saturday morning laptop trick – you might end up surprised! If you’re on your own, create a space to honour this process; it’s an important one, and requires you coming face to face with the fact that you are going to die. That surely requires a tenderness towards yourself, alongside the practicalities of the questions.

So what happened to my husband? Were his wishes respected? He said he wanted to die at home. What actually happened was that by the time he had come to terms with the fact he was very close to death, he was too ill to be moved from the hospital. There were all sorts of complex reasons for this, but if he had been more able to face up to his fear of death, he likely would have returned home to have the kind of death he said he wanted.

We had answered most of the questions posed, and those were very helpful. But we hadn’t taken care of them all – for instance, I didn’t once think about how the body would actually get disposed of. So when Philip died in Aberdeen hospital, two hours drive away, how was I going to get the body back? I discovered later it could have been in the back of a friend’s car, or I could have hired a white van man and popped the body in that. As it was, I paid the funeral director to go and get it. It’s these kinds of things that, thought through in advance, and specified in writing, really help your loved ones after you die.

Moral of the story: start taking care of your own death now! It’s a lot easier than waiting until you have a life threatening illness yourself. Prepare, tell stories, start a conversation with your children or family members, visit a Death Café. Anything you can do that will help you make the transition from this dimension into another in an easier way, for both you and those loved ones you leave behind.

Jane Duncan Rogers is the author of Gifted By Grief: A True Story of Cancer, Loss and Rebirth and Before I Go: The Essential Guide to Creating a Good End of Life Plan. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.