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Your Final Gift

Losing a loved one is heartbreaking. You can make this time easier by giving your family a truly special gift—your wishes for when you die. What are your final wishes and have you shared them?

Death is an inevitable conclusion to life. We all die. Losing a loved one is heartbreaking. You can make this time easier on your family and friends by giving them one final gift—your wishes for when you die.

I know it's not an easy subject to discuss. You may even feel uncomfortable reading this blog. I thought twice about writing the blog because I know that many people do not feel comfortable discussing death. I feel strongly that it is a topic that needs to be more openly discussed. By having these discussions, we can make it a little easier for our loved ones during a difficult time.

In 2000, my father-in-law died suddenly from drowning. In 2003, my mother-in-law died in a week from pancreatic cancer. The deaths were sudden. With the death of my mother-in-law, my husband along with his brother and sister had to make funeral and memorial decisions. What kind of casket did she want? What did she want her epitaph on the headstone to be? Did she have a preference for how she wanted her memorial service? My mother-in-law already had her plot picked out, but there were still decisions to be made.

I decided that I wanted to ask my family ahead of time about their preferences if they died before me so that I didn't have to worry about making decisions during an emotional time. I am attaching a questionnaire that I created and had my family fill out. Even if you have a will (which is great!), these topics are not typically covered in it. The questionnaire is broken up into three parts: Documents, Burial or Cremation, and Memorial.

In the Document section, it covers questions about whether you have a will and Health Directive. It asks about life insurance policies and bank accounts. Have you made arrangements for your pet? In the Burial section, it asks if you want to be an organ donor and whether you want to be cremated or buried. If buried, do you want an open or closed casket? Do you have a certain outfit you want to be buried in? If cremated, where do you want your ashes scattered? The Memorial section asks about the type of celebration you want to have. Do you have certain songs you want played, is there a charity you want donations to go to, are there certain people you want notified? If there are areas where you don't have a strong preference, you can just put "no preference."

This is just a brief overview of some of the questions included. I am not an expert on these matters. I am just someone who has experienced loss and wants to make it a little easier for myself and my loved ones when death happens. I wanted to write this blog in case it could help you and your families too. Please feel free to edit the document to suit your needs. There are also resources online and software programs to help you with this process. Mortuaries typically have a booklet you can fill out as well with this type of information.

When I gave the questionnaire to my mother and sister, they both readily filled it out. My sister wants Led Zeppelin's Thank You song played during her memorial. She wants roses, orchids, and stargazer lilies. It comforts me to know that she will have the music and flowers she wants, not the ones that I want or the ones I think she wants. I know who my mom wants to conduct the funeral service and I know that she wants it to say "she lived with pizzazz" on her headstone. My dad was a little more reticent to fill out the form. He never actually did, so I asked him the questions and then documented his answers and sent it out to my family. It's about having the conversation in whatever way works for you and your family.

Some people feel that the survivors should make the decisions based on what they want because they are the ones alive and suffering the loss. For example, my husband wants to have a green burial, but the closest option is an hour away from where we live. Although this is his preference, he feels even stronger that he would want me to be happy. If I preferred to have his ashes scattered someplace I visit frequently or saved for us to be scattered together, he wants that for me.

It can get complicated to leave it up to the survivors without discussing it ahead of time in the event that they have differing opinions. Why risk creating more heartache during an already sensitive time when emotions are high and we need to support each other, not work against each other? Help your loved ones stay united by taking the guesswork out of it. By having the conversation, you can understand what aspects are most important to one another and have a joint plan that honors everyone's wishes. 

Filling out the questionnaire or having a discussion about this topic is truly a special gift you can give to your loved ones. If you want to take it a step further, you can make arrangements ahead of time. My sister has prepaid for her cremation with Neptune Society. My mom has pre-paid for her plot, headstone, burial, and more with the mortuary of the memorial park she wants to be buried at. It is estimated that costs double every decade for burial services, so if you prepay, you can save money by locking in at the current rate. I am truly grateful that my mom has made all of these arrangements. It's not about the money, it's about making it easier for my sister and me when the time comes if she dies before we do. I can find comfort in knowing that where and how she is buried is just as she would have wanted it.

Some people feel comfortable talking about it and others don't. I called my mom this morning to ask her about her arrangements as I was writing this blog. She didn't miss a beat diving right into what arrangements had been made, where the documents were, what newspaper she wanted her obituary in, etc. My dad, on the other hand, doesn't seem to feel as comfortable with the topic and does not have any arrangements made. He said that making these arrangements is something he wants to do, but he finds it to be an unpleasant topic. He doesn't want to think about dying. My mom's boyfriend feels the same way. He hasn't done a will because he says, "I can't think about not being here."

I don't want to think about not being here either, but I love my family and I want to make it as easy as possible for them when I die. And, selfishly, I want them to make it as easy as possible for me when they die. Maybe it's because I love them so much and I know how devastated I will be when they die. I'm trying to help myself.

Death is a part of life whether we like it or not. Even if discussing it is something you don't entirely feel comfortable with, do it for your loved ones. It doesn't have to be something that you dwell on. You can do it now and then revisit it every five to ten years. By addressing the topic, it doesn't mean that you are saying you will be dying any time soon, it just means you recognize that you will die eventually. Personally, I think having my family tell me their final wishes is the greatest gift they could ever give me.

What are your final wishes and have you shared them with your loved ones?

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Dina Colman, MA, MBA, is a healthy living coach and writer. She has her Master’s degree in Holistic Health Education from John F. Kennedy University and her MBA from Kellogg at Northwestern University. She founded Four Quadrant Living—a simpler, natural, more fun way to a healthier, happier, and energetic life. Four Quadrant Living provides information and motivation for healthy living through nourishment of the four quadrants of our lives—Mind, Body, Relationships, and Environment. Dina has a private practice, working with clients to help them create health in their lives by eating well, finding the fun in exercise, reducing stress, managing relationships, and creating a healthy environment. Dina is also writing a book about healthy living that will be published in 2013. Contact Dina at dina@fourquadrantliving.com

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