Where do you begin to plan for a good death? There is a lot to think about and the task might seem daunting at first. It's likely that you will think about the process of dying, your loved ones and how you will be remembered. Even if you are not religious, you may think about God and life after death.
There is a traditional Catholic prayer that appeals to God to be spared “from a sudden and unprovided death”.1
The person praying asks for time to seek forgiveness for their sins before they die. But a diagnosis of terminal illness may also give you time to put your earthly affairs in order.
Dr Julian Hughes, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry at the University of Bristol, says some patients are relieved to be told exactly what is wrong with them, even it means their illness will kill them.
Dr Hughes says: “Partly this is because people like some sort of certainty but there is a more metaphysical thing that goes on. Some people think ‘Now I know the shape of my life and know maybe I have six months and I should use it as best I can’.”
Before she died in April 2016, Sister Anne Donockley, a nun from Cumbria who died in April 2016 after suffering for several years with chronic illness, said of planning for her death: “It wasn’t with a view to dying; it was about engaging with death for me. It was a way of encountering death with God and being comfortable with it.”
Of course, you can begin to plan for a good death when you are fit and healthy. From making a will to planning your funeral, this involves thinking about your legacy and how you would like to be remembered.
Like most difficult decisions, finding the right people to talk to can often be the first step towards making these choices easier. Speaking to a solicitor about making a will or a funeral director about planning your funeral can put your mind at rest and give you some guidance about the decisions you need to make.
A will sets in place what will happen to your belongings after you die. If you are a parent, it is also about appointing a guardian for your children. You can make one at any age, and it can always be changed and updated according to your circumstances. It can also help to avoid any potential disputes among your family or friends.
Even if you are young person and do not own your own home or have other valuable assets, it is worth making a will to protect your digital possessions. Gary Rycroft, a solicitor from Lancashire, says: “In today’s digital world making a will is also about passing on your digital assets such as photograph and music collections and curating your social media presence.”2
It may also help your family if you prepare a document with details of your bank accounts, pension, energy and water providers. Age UK offers a free LifeBook where this information can be listed.
You may have heard of people making a ‘living will’. This is something very different to the will you make about your material belongings. A living will is a document in which you state your wishes about your medical treatment and your care in case there comes a time when you are not able to express this yourself. A living will usually refers to Advance Care Planning.3
There are several ways you may think of to keep memories of you alive after your death. Adrian Parker, a specialist drinks importer, now in his sixties, survived a brain tumour in 2008, and even after being given the all clear had this idea:
“It occurred to me to make a video of myself as I got older, talking about my life. Although I haven’t done it yet, it’s something I still consider doing and giving to my children. It’s not morbid, it’s just a way of leaving something lasting for my children and hopefully grandchildren one day.”
Another idea is to make a memory book or box of memories. This could bring together photographs, special messages and cards, theatre programmes or other items that trigger happy memories of events and celebrations.
Talking to a priest, chaplain or anyone who might be able to give you spiritual guidance can be helpful when trying to plan and understand the spiritual side of death.
Death is personal. Ultimately, you have to prepare for your own death. But you don’t have to make these plans alone. We do a lot of planning for the arrival of a new life before and during pregnancy, but we don’t often like to think about death. The more we are able to accept death and talk about it, the easier it will be to plan good and better deaths.
As she was dying of pancreatic cancer, the Catholic artist and writer, 74 year-old Elizabeth Wang, had this advice for those who are suffering and whose faith is weakening:
“It’s always the same answer – to turn to God and to pray, and to be honest and say ‘I am finding life difficult, I am finding faith difficult’. This is why Jesus said at one point: ‘If you are like little children…’ you will be all right; it’s that simplicity in his presence that he wants to hear and see in us.”
Elizabeth died on 10 September 2016 just a few hours after celebrating Mass with her family in her room.