Chapstick, morphine, and good-byes: Engage With Grace

Dad trout fishing in the mountains of Colorado

Dad trout fishing in the mountains of Colorado

Surrounded by his professional books and photo albums of world travel, my father passed away in his den a few days before Christmas, 2004. We were at his side – putting chapstick on his dry lips, drops of morphine under his tongue, and softly kissing his brow as we said our good-byes, and told him we were ready to let him go. He peacefully passed away at four in the morning, illuminated by the warm glow of his desk lamp, with music softly playing on the radio. A call to Hospice immediately brought a nurse and social worker, and by day break my father was carried away and my mother began finalizing the obituary and planning the memorial service.

My father had been a probate attorney for decades, routinely drawing up wills and handling estates. My mother had been a Hospice volunteer for over a dozen years. For our family, talk of death at the dinner table routinely mingled with talk of dentist appointments, travel plans, and  admonishments to eat our vegetables or forgo dessert.

My father passed away only slightly more than 48 hours after suffering a massive stroke. Although everything happened very quickly, we were prepared – as much as one can be.

With the arrival of the first grandchild, my parents revised their wills, and all of us drafted wills and living wills. My parents crafted detailed letters to us outlining their wishes for cremation, what accountant to contact, instructions on safe deposit boxes, and what music to play at their memorial services. Once my parents knew everything was in order they gave a deep sigh of relief, and we all went back to our daily routines.

Preparing for your own death and sharing your plans with your family members is one of the most empowering things you can do as an individual, and may be the most powerful way you can show your family how much you love them.

My father had a living will with a clear Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order. With the help of medical and hospice staff, my father passed away peacefully in our home, and we were able to devote our time and energy toward celebrating his life.

“An advance directive is your life on your terms. Whether you’re 18 or 80, documenting your wishes today means your family won’t have to make heart-wrenching decisions later.”  – Put it in writing

Death can be very uncomfortable and taboo to think about, let alone talk about. How you and your loved ones approach it may depend on personal, cultural, and religious beliefs.

Difficult though it may be, I strongly urge you to spend a little time thinking about what scenario you may prefer. Here are some questions to consider:

  • If something happens to you and you become terminally ill, would you want to be kept alive?
  • Would you like to donate your organs?  If so, do you have an organ donor card?
  • Do you want a memorial service? A party? What music would you like to have played? Who would you like to have participate?
  • Would you prefer to be cremated? If so, what should be done with the ashes?
  • If donations are made in your name, what charities should they go to?
  • What would you like to happen to the cedar chest and the collection of vintage beer steins? Should they go to a specific family member or end up on e-bay?
  • Do your family members know your answers to these questions? Do you know their answers?

The holidays provide an opportunity to discuss your wishes with family members. The Engage With Grace One Slide Project offers a list of 5 specific questions to help you get started:

Engage With Grace - The one slide

If you aren’t quite prepared to have this discussion with your family, consider adding the words “Advance Directives” to your New Year’s Resolutions list.

Then give some thought as to what might be a comfortable environment for you to discuss your wishes with your family.

Several years ago while my mother and I were watching the funeral of Gerald Ford together on TV, she informed me she had a folder labeled “Demise” in the cabinet with all her documents and wishes. I teased her, “Demise? Is the folder black?” She pulled out a manila folder and I peeked in.

“I would like to be cremated.”
“What should we do with your ashes?”
“You can scatter them near your dad’s, in the mountains.”

Helpful resources
Advance Directives and Do Not Resuscitate Orders provides a good basic description.
Caring Connections offers information on numerous aspects of advance care planning, including links to advance directive forms by state. provides information on organ and tissue donation and transplantation.

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This post is part of the Thanksgiving weekend Engage with Grace blog rally.

From EWG: Things we are grateful for this year

At the heart of Engage With Grace are five questions designed to get the conversation about end-of-life started. They’re not easy questions, but they are important — and believe it or not, most people find they actually enjoy discussing their answers with loved ones. The key is having the conversation before it’s too late.

In the spirit of the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend, we’d like to highlight some things for which we’re grateful.

Thank you to Atul Gawande for writing such a fiercely intelligent and compelling piece on “letting go”– it is a work of art, and a must read.

Thank you to whomever perpetuated the myth of “death panels” for putting a fine point on all the things we don’t stand for, and in the process, shining a light on the right we all have to live our lives with intent – right through to the end.

Thank you to TEDMED for letting us share our story and our vision.

[For the full post, see  Things we are grateful for this year. ]

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Engage with Grace Blog Rally

Links to amazing posts that are part of the Thanksgiving weekend Engage with Grace blog rally can be found on Twitter: #EWG, @engagewithgrace.  Here are just a few of the many powerful posts that are worth reading: