The deaths of celebrities can chill us to the core. Our parents and grandparents remember exactly where they were on November 22, 1963, when television host Walter Cronkite broke the devastating news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. The deaths of celebrities, especially young people, can shock and sadden us. But these tragedies also raise awareness of diseases like actor Robin Williams’ depression, singer Whitney Houston’s addiction, musician David Bowie’s liver cancer and rock star Freddie Mercury’s HIV/AIDS.
The untimely death of 53-year-old actress Anne Heche after a serious car accident in Los Angeles is a harrowing reminder that driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol kills thousands of Americans every year. Heche suffered a severe brain injury from the crash and fell into a coma. She was kept alive while medical experts determined if any of her organs could be donated. According to Heche’s family, organ donation and helping to save another life was very important to her. But what if Heche hadn’t told her family members about her commitment to organ donation? And how do family members decide whether to end or continue life support for their loved one?
Life or death decisions like these can be heartbreaking and add to the anxiety of family members who know the death of their loved one is imminent. But there are some steps we can all take now, especially when we are relatively young and healthy, to guide our family members through the difficult decisions that will someday be required. By clearly naming and communicating the medical treatments we want (or don’t want) at the end of life, we can relieve our loved ones of having to make these weighty decisions themselves.
I have been writing about end-of-life decision making for nearly two decades and I know how difficult it can be for families to address these difficult issues. Few people like to think or talk about death. Some fear that talking about a future death is “bad luck.” Others find it futile to think of death now; After all, how can we make plans for something that is many years away? These concerns are understandable. However, if we think and talk about these dark issues “early and often,” we can help ourselves die on our own terms. We can also help prevent family arguments about the best course of treatment and protect loved ones from the guilt that can accompany decisions to remove life support.
Here are three steps you must take now to prepare for death, no matter how far away. It is also wise to encourage family and friends to do the same so that you can feel informed of their preferences should you be called as a decision maker.
Carry out a precautionary plan.
Preparedness planning, which typically includes a living will and a health care power of attorney or permanent power of attorney for health care (DPAHC), allows people to prescribe what medical treatments they want or don’t want at the end of life.
A living will formally articulates preferences for care, e.g. B. whether to use comfort measures such as hospice and palliative care or more invasive measures such as feeding tubes and ventilators. Documenting those preferences, when you can still make those choices yourself, helps ensure you die on your own terms — a cornerstone of the “good death.”
If you are relatively young and healthy in appointing a health care representative, you can designate a specific family member, friend, or doctor to make decisions for you if you are unable to communicate. It also clarifies the responsibilities of loved ones and can ward off disputes that might arise around the deathbed. These early conversations also prevent panicked decisions in the event of an accident (like Heche’s) or if your health suddenly and dramatically deteriorates. It is important to reconsider living wills and DPAHC appointments in response to life changes. For example, after a divorce, people tend to replace their spouse with an adult child as a DPAHC.
Discuss your values and preferences with loved ones and caregivers.
Despite all the benefits of proactive care planning, some people face obstacles to these formal preparations, such as literacy or not having access to an attorney who can guide the process. In rare cases, these documents cannot be found at the time the decision is made.
For these reasons, it’s important to simply talk with family about your end-of-life values. In general, do you want to preserve your life at all costs, even when connected to a feeding tube? Or do you prioritize comfort and quality of life instead of just staying alive? Discussing these common values can be very helpful to family members who may be charged with your end-of-life decisions.
Many resources are available to have these conversations. Organizations like The Conversation Project have created guides to encourage discussion about the end of life. A good place to start can be retirement planning materials, ranging from living wills to the “five wishes” program, which helps clarify people’s values about how they want to spend their final days. Of course, these conversations should be repeated regularly, as people’s preferences can change over time.
Consider becoming an organ donor.
Giving the “gift of life” is one of the most selfless things a human being can do. Organ donation is the process of giving a healthy organ or tissue to a person in need through a surgical transplant process. Donations can be made by both living and deceased people. This process requires the consent of the donor while alive or after death, as well as the consent of the next of kin.
Almost every major religious denomination in the United States supports and encourages organ donation. It’s easy to become a donor through your registry office or motor vehicle authority. Family members often say that knowing that their loved one’s organs are helping others brings them some comfort and a sense of meaning as they cope with their loss.
Death is one of life’s few certainties, but preparing for the inevitable can help minimize the suffering of the dying patient at the end of life and ease the grief of those left behind.