The privilege of being human and to love comes hand in hand with the burden of suffering we experience when we lose those we love. And when it happens, none of us is ready to face a mountain of bureaucracy, especially when we are the most vulnerable.
A dear friend lies dying in Europe; she has responded badly to a new cancer treatment. I never imagined the last time I’d see her would be the last. I can’t even say goodbye telephonically because she’s already slipped into the realm of semi-consciousness. Her resourceful and only daughter, who’s managed the permits to travel across borders, is now quarantined with her mother. She continues to speak to her, knowing that hearing is the last sense to go. Will there be another burst of lucidity or is this now the time of simply waiting, holding space, until there’s readiness for that final breath? Friends light candles as a simple symbol of “we are thinking of you and with you at this time”.
While the hours go by, all the practical things surface. There’s a sincere hope all her affairs are in order. Many people that I’ve met think that having a valid, up-to-date will is all that’s needed for your affairs to be in order. Yet statistics show that an astonishing 86% of South Africans die without leaving a valid will; 86% of families then have to navigate through the rules of intestate succession; this will contribute to delays and possible discomfort when nominations on executorship have to be decided upon by the closest family.
The last will and testament are just the thin end of the wedge of what is needed when someone has died.
What most people don’t know is that the requirements of a valid will are very simple indeed – they require you to set out your wishes – and that you sign the document in front of two witnesses (a thumbprint is acceptable if your handwriting is too shaky). It is advisable that the witnesses are over the age of 18, and they should not be people who stand to gain from the will. It is also helpful (but not obligatory) to nominate the executor – the person you name to guide the winding up of your estate. Wishes, witnesses, and signature are the essentials of what constitutes a legally compliant will.
There is no legal obligation to use a lawyer. Of course, many people want the help of a financial adviser, an attorney or a lawyer to get advice on the drafting, especially for tax implications; yet, it seems that many people just never get around to setting up those appointments to have this paperwork in place.
The last will and testament are just the thin end of the wedge of what is needed when someone has died. I’ve had clients realise that they have never discussed nor agreed upon who they would nominate as a guardian for their minor children – and if they were both to disappear, there would be mayhem.
I have also seen the spouse who sat outside of the theatre, received the news that her husband died on the operating table, and reached to take his phone out of her bag to phone his family, friends and colleagues and then realised she did not know the pin code. A thoughtful man, he’d taken the trouble to write out his last wishes and guidelines for his funeral on his laptop – but she also did not know the password.
There is my husband, the son tasked to wind up his parent’s estate who comes across one small stumbling block after another. What do you do when your parents sold the trailer but never did the paperwork about the transfer of ownership and the licence payment reminders keep on coming? It’s another niggly loose end to tie up – among many niggly loose ends – that altogether are extremely time-consuming and require painstaking attention.
But what if you were to decide that your last parting gift to your family would be that you would seriously set your mind to dying with your affairs completely and comprehensively in order; that you have thought through what’s entailed in winding up your life so that at the time of your death everything will be straightforward for those you love the most?
The first set of documents to generate are the ones needed for while you are dying. You will need to set out your end-of-life medical choices (Advance Directives) and nominate a ‘Health Care Proxy’, also known in some countries as your medical power of attorney. Then, prepare a living will, which specifies what’s most important to you as your bodily and/or mental conditions deteriorate. You’ll also need another document at hand if you had made a decision to be an organ donor.
It is also possible that you may become physically or mentally incapacitated and become unable to do your online banking or sign a cheque. It is advisable then to decide who you trust well enough to nominate as your Financial Power of Attorney, a person who will be authorised to spend on your needs during this challenging time. And finally, if you haven’t included it as part of your living will, you need to have conversations and make sure that people are aware of any last wishes, such as the receiving of the sacrament of last rites: hearing of confession, receiving of viaticum, your Last Holy Communion. You are the one who knows what is appropriate for you according to your spiritual orientation.
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.