Monday, April 3, 2017

The Conversation You Need to Have

Shortly after my father was diagnosed with cancer, I found myself asking him what kind of funeral service he would like and where he would like to be buried. At that point in time we had no idea what his prognosis was or if his cancer had even metastasized (it has). But I'd read enough about lung cancer in the previous few days to know that this was a conversation we needed to have, sooner rather than later. In fact, it's a conversation we should have had long before he became ill.

Death is an inevitable fact of life, and yet it is a subject so many are reluctant to discuss. Most couples have no idea what their spouse's dying wishes are, let alone their aging parents. We avoid the topic because it's uncomfortable and because it makes us sad. No one wants to think about someone we love dying. Death is a very sobering thought. But it is also a reality we will all face at some point in time. If we are fortunate it is a reality that won't happen until we reach a ripe old age. But of course, most of us won't be that fortunate. Death rarely comes to take us gently in our sleep when we are 100. It often sneaks up on us when we least expect it. Sometimes it comes on an ordinary May morning when we are 43.

In truth, death is never gentle, especially for those left behind. It's excruciatingly painful, and it is an emotionally and physically exhausting process.

We can never be fully prepared for the loss of our spouse (or any other loved one) but there are some things we can do now that will help us when that day inevitably arrives.

First and foremost, make sure you have all of your legal affairs in order. This means having proper wills and powers of attorney. There is a business side to death, and it brings with it a seemingly never ending stack of paperwork. It will be much more difficult to settle your spouse's estate without proper legal documentation. And the last thing any grieving widow or widower needs to deal with is an estate that has gone to probate.

And you need to sit down and have that "just in case" conversation. It's not an easy conversation to have but it is vitally important.

I will always be grateful that Dan made me have that conversation before he left for Afghanistan.

He was very adamant about what he wanted for me and our children. He made me promise him that we would have good, happy lives if something happened to him (real happy, not pretend on the surface happy). And he made me promise him that I would not spend my life alone out of some misplaced obligation to him. In order for him to deploy and do his job, he needed the assurance that I would be okay, that we would be happy and that our lives would go on without him.

I had no idea at the time just how important that conversation would be.

That conversation was the prologue to this second chapter of my life. In essence, Dan gave me permission (not that I actually needed it, mind you) to move forward with my life without him; to be happy, to love and to eventually get married again. It is reassuring for me to know he would have approved of all of the decisions I have made in the last three years. When others question or criticize those decisions, I know in my heart I have honoured my promises to him.

Ironically, Dan and I never discussed funeral or burial arrangements, but I wish we had. In the days immediately following his death I had so many decisions to make. Burial or cremation? What kind of casket? Maple or oak; satin or polyester lining? Ceramic or steel urn? Open casket or closed?  A religious or non religious service? Would he be buried in the National Military Cemetery or in Nova Scotia? All overwhelming decisions to make when you are exhausted and grieving.  At one point in time I just wanted to scream, "I don't care, just put him in a God damned casket." The most difficult decision I had to make was where to bury him. It was important to me that he be buried with his comrades in Ottawa, but I also knew a part of his heart had always been in Nova Scotia, so I divided his ashes and buried him in both. I'm very glad I made that decision, though I know Dan would have shaken his head at all the extra fuss (and expense) the second burial caused.

This is why I recently found my self discussing funeral arrangements with my parents, I didn't want my mother (or my father, as the case may be) to have to make all of these decisions on their own, after the fact. It wasn't an easy conversation to have but it was absolutely necessary. Within a week or so of my father's diagnosis, I had all my parents' legal and financial affairs sorted out. I knew what kind of funeral they would like and where they want to be buried. It is a huge burden off of their shoulders (and mine) to have all of these issues resolved and out of the way. They don't need that extra stress. Living with cancer is stressful enough.

I was very fortunate that I had time to help my parents prepare. That is sadly too often not the case.

If you haven't had this conversation with your spouse (or your parents) you need to. As soon as possible. Death won't wait for you to get things done. So don't put it off thinking you have time. Because you really never know when you will run out of time.

Be brave enough to have a conversation that matters. Before it is too late.

It truly is the most important conversation you will ever have.

"It is the greatest wisdom, in time of health and strength, to prepare for sickness and death: he that really doth so, his business of dying is half done. ~ Richard Illidge

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