The second set of documents are for after you die. It’s advisable to have a contact list that is hierarchically organised: who are the people who must be phoned immediately, people who may want to come to your home, and pay their respects to the dead person before they go to the mortuary or join evening prayer or even attend the service and so forth.
People often lose their agency during such times. They feel vulnerable and depleted. It is critical to be forward-looking and think through things long before a decision is needed.
In addition, one needs to think of dependents – whether minors or elders – and discuss guardianship: what are the arrangements for where they are to live.
Then, some of us are very attached to our pets and part of our readiness to die includes that we have agreements in place as to what will happen to them.
The third set of documents you need in place are needed a little later when wakes, services and tears are all complete. It’s customary to have a reading of the last will and testament. There will be a few further documents that are needed for the winding up of your estate: your birth certificate, your identity document, documents to do with the assets you own (the place you lived, the car you drove). If you have devices such as mobile phones, computers, tablets, a list showing passwords or codes is sensible. And if you’ve lived a virtual life through your devices, what instructions have you left for closing your social media accounts?
The fourth area concerns money; there may be policies that will vest on your death, and making sure that the beneficiaries are named is imperative. The bills will keep coming, and it’s therefore wise to make a complete list of all your monthly and annual payments and leave the contracts accessible with the details required for the closing of accounts. A cash flow plan would also be helpful for the bereaved to understand the financial flow. Having a funeral plan or other accessible money that covers the funeral costs is important, but what about going forward? Are there loans that need to be settled or have you been supporting someone through their studies – take time to think about what will happen then.
People often lose their agency during such times. They feel vulnerable and depleted. It is critical to be forward-looking and think through things long before a decision is needed. This does not mean dwelling on mortality morbidly but rather having a healthy respect for its inevitable eventuality and affording it the contemplation it deserves.
Robin L Shapiro in her book, The Secret Language of Healthcare: how to ask for the care that you deserve, offers us a lay person’s guide to common end-of-life decisions. Barbara Lee Coombs in Finish Strong offers an easy to understand, lay persons’ guide to the seven stages of dementia. And Atul Gawande in his Being Mortal offers three case studies, his father, his grandfather and his mother-in-law – all dying different deaths.
But if non-fiction is not your genre, it’s possible to learn through story-telling. Neuroscientist-turned-fiction author Lisa Genova offers an emotionally poignant, scientifically accurate rendering of Alzheimer’s in Still Alice (made into a film of that name). Genova’s Every Note Played tells the story of a pianist who has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a motor neuron disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which brings his career to an end as nerve deterioration and paralysis advance steadily.
The focus of this has been on the administrative detail of our lives. There might be other more creative paperwork you want to undertake, letters to people that affirm their place in your life, to be given to them either on your death or a special occasion that you know you won’t be there to attend.
From the time of my starting writing this article to my finishing it two days later, I am newly bereaved. My friend has died. Suddenly after the stillness and calm of waiting there’s an all systems go signal. I am on the list of notifications and I have a task to phone many people on the second list. Spreading the load is yet another thing to consider: who can you share the load with and line them up in the wings, primed, willing and ready for when the inevitable will occur? DM/ ML
Helena Dolny is a leadership coach and author of Before Forever After: when conversations about living meet questions about dying. Ngiphiwe Mhlangu is a leading journalist and media strategist. Together they joined forces as founders of LoveLegacyDignity, a social enterprise which promotes life-affirming conversations in the face of our inevitable mortality.