Random Thoughts of a Disordered Mind


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Have You Written Your Obituary?

There are three things that you can do now to make things easier for your family when you die. You don’t need to be sick to do them – in fact, it’s better to do these while you’re healthy and have time to think and plan. You can do them in any order. But trust me on this: taking the time to do these three things is a gift to your loved ones.

In Memory OfFirst, write your obituary. You’ve read many of them and if you haven’t, just pull up any local paper and read a bunch. Some of them are boring and just have name, birth and death dates, spouse, children. My favorite obituaries, though, tell me who the person was, what their passions were, what made their lives better. My dad read to first graders for over 20 years and you can bet that will be in his obituary. I read a wonderful one years ago about a 102-year old woman known for her pie baking – I knew who she was after reading it. Include basic information but go beyond it to tell people who you are and why you mattered. Pick a good picture for the obituary, too, preferably one that looks like you as a mature person and not the army picture if you are in your 70’s.

Second, plan your funeral or memorial service and give a copy of what you decide to your church office as well as your own files. A funeral service is conducted when the body is present; when it’s not, as in the case with cremation, there is a memorial service. Different religious faiths and denominations have structure or liturgy for their services, but it’s up to the family – to you – to select scriptures or readings to be included, and to decide on music that’s significant.

This doesn’t have to be hard! There are websites with ideas, such as 30 Top Funeral Bible Verses. Hymnals and prayer books also have suggested music and scripture that’s appropriate. Do you want to have a choir sing, or maybe someone sing a solo? Write it down!  Nothing is written in stone and it can be changed as you change and want something else. Also remember that a memorial service is for the living, so if your family decides on something else, that’s okay, too. But at least they will know what you want, and that will help enormously.

TombstoneFinally, plan what happens to your body. Do you want to be cremated or buried? Do you know where the body/ashes will be interred?  Sit down with a funeral home (or several, to decide on one), and make plans. Even better, prepay it to lock in prices (they call this “pre-need arrangements”).  Your family won’t have to do anything when you die except call the funeral home and meet to review what has already been arranged.

I work in a church office and deal with memorial services and grieving families all the time. I’ve seen what a difference it is for them when these three things have been planned in advance. Make thoughtful decisions about what you want, write them down, and make sure your family and your religious home have copies. It might be the best gift you can leave them.

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Death, three years later

P1010382Three years ago yesterday, my mom died from complications of COPD. She had been fading away for the few years prior to that, and since my brother and I had researched the disease, her death was more of, “Oh, it’s now” rather than, “OMG, NOOOOO.” My father, on the other hand, was devastated. He still is.

The last time I saw her was at my niece’s wedding three weeks before Mom died. She had saved all her energy for the weekend and it took everything out of her. Her body was frail, almost bird-tiny, and she had almost no reserves of energy. My sis-in-law arranged for transport wheelchairs for both of our moms for the wedding activities, and that allowed Mom to be present for rehearsal dinner, family visiting, the wedding ceremony, and reception, with the whole family (except bridal couple) gathered at the same table. We were all happy, looked wonderful, shared the joy of the day and the enjoyment of each other’s company. And we all said goodbye when she and Dad left to go home. We had our goodbye, even though we didn’t know it was the final one.

I lived half way across the country and didn’t see her often. We talked every day at 6pm my time, 5pm her time, for seven years, since she was hospitalized for a serious infection following an emergency appendectomy when she was 76. Note that she diagnosed herself with appendicitis reading Google search results. I am her daughter in more ways than one.

Three years after her death, I’m living in her house, cooking in her kitchen, caring for her husband of 62 years. And I listen to Dad tell stories about her every day, which sometimes makes me crazy because I hear the same ones, word for word, many times. Yesterday we went to a memorial service for a friend and it allowed us to heal a little more.

 


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Sudden loss

One of my friends died suddenly yesterday, on the golf course in New Mexico while traveling with a group from our community. Although death is always a reality when you live in a place that has mostly 55+ residents, this one hit extra hard because it was so unexpected, because of where he was at the time, but mostly because he was so beloved by all. He had been a leader in the community and the church, but was also just a fun person who brought a smile to our faces.

We have a lot of memorial services here over the course of a year but most come after a lingering illness or simply from complications of age. This death was different and has made us stop in our tracks. Bob was a member of the choir and last night, instead of rehearsal, we spent time talking out the facts and reactions, and praying together.

It’s too soon to know anything else now. Logistics get complicated when a body needs to be moved across state lines and there are too many unknowns. What we do know is that we lost someone who mattered.


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Slow Medicine

The mother of one of my staff is dying of cancer and we find ourselves having small conversations in different combinations of people, talking about that situation but also more generally about death and dying, thinking of ourselves, family and friends. And then I read an extraordinary article in the New York Times: For the Elderly, Being Heard About Life’s End.

It’s about Slow Medicine, a phrase I wasn’t familiar with. But the concept of it is important in our increasingly aging world with newer and better abilities to sustain life, sometimes at all costs. It also reminded me of a conversation I had with my parents months ago about what they wanted for medical care for something huge like cancer.

My mom is 77 and Dad is 80; although they are young at heart, their bodies are aging and things are starting to not work as well. Let’s face it, that’s going to happen to all of us. Joints deteriorate, organs fail, systems get clogged or sick with diseased cells that multiply into a myriad of possibilities including but not limited to cancer. Minds can become foggy with Alzheimer’s. The ability to care for ourselves isn’t always there.

Just because it’s medically possible to intervene and fix things doesn’t mean that it’s always a good idea for someone who is older. I’m not talking about euthanasia or treating people harshly or with indifference. But older bodies are often not as good candidates for successful surgeries as younger, healthier ones even as current medical practice seems to push us to try everything no matter what the cost. And the cost is not just on the body and spirit, it’s also financial. Medication and surgery, physical therapy and treatments cost big bucks.

Slow Medicine is about having choices including the choice not to pursue treatment. If the decision is not to treat cancer, then why have a biopsy to verify that you have it, if doing so puts other things at risk? My parents have made a decision to pursue some things but not others. They are older than I am (well, duh, they are my parents) and the choices they are making for themselves at their ages are not necessarily the ones that I would make for myself now. But later? Yes. I want that right to make those decisions in an informed way, sharing them with my health care proxy and my doctor, looking to the quality and dignity of life that may remain.

There was much discussion when Terri Schiavo was the subject of a tug of war over her care at a point in her life when she wasn’t able to voice her own wishes. The time to think about these issues is now, while we’re healthy and aware and in full command of our faculties. Unfortunately, it usually gets discussed too late. Tara Parker-Pope at the Times also blogged about Last Wishes. Gotta love the Times; there is so much meat, so much to think about.

Even things we would rather went away.


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Mixed Bag Weekend

Window with rag dollsI love being able to sleep until I wake up on weekends. Getting up at 5:50am on work days is hard for one who is totally not a morning person and even though I try to get to bed at a decent hour, I’m usually somewhat sleep deprived by Saturday. Now that I changed to a Wed. WW meeting instead of on Sat., I’ve got more time to wake up slowly and then piddle around doing stuff.

The original plans for the weekend were to head to the Durham Fair but I ended up not going. Much as I loved the idea of seeing farm animals, crafts, and riding the ferris wheel, I was a little worried about the amount of standing and walking involved. Not to mention the stations of fried dough. I don’t even like it but it’s awfully tempting to eat weird fatty stuff just because it’s around.

So instead of the fair, I attempted to put up curtain rods. Ha ha ha. It was quite an adventure that took me two days and two trips to Home Depot. There were three rods all for double windows, for a total of 9 supports and 18 anchored screws. There was the problem – I ended up mangling some of the anchors and/or pulling some out of the wall, leaving big holes that required spackling. Thank heavens they’re all up now and they do look pretty stylish if I do say so myself.

The curtains are another matter. Last weekend I went to the Country Curtains store to pick out curtains, knowing that being able to see and touch them make it a lot easier to do than just using a printed catalog or website. I ended up with insulated weaver’s cloth tabbed curtains in a natural shade, made for really wide windows for “proper draping”. Unfortunately, once they were up on my bedroom wall, I knew they were not going to work. Too blah and too much fabric.

So today I was on the road again, entertained by Prairie Home Companion as I drove back to the store. I exchanged the boring curtains for different kinds for the two rooms, a lovely soft rose microsuede for my bedroom (goes nicely with my quilt) and a soft burnished gold patterned velvet lined curtains for my study. I was struck on the way home by how lovely the ride was – more trees were sporting reds and golds than even last week and I can tell we’re into fall.

Cleaning up the mess I’d made with the curtain rod installations led to full-scale house cleaning, including mopping the kitchen floor, which I despise doing. I’m still sneezing from the dust I released but things do look a lot better.

The cleaning also gave me a physical release for the emotions that were bubbling inside. I learned today that a friend died on Saturday morning. Bob had been recovering from complications related to knee surgery when he went into cardiac arrest and died. Just like that, he’s gone.

ob was a giant in my field and had been looking forward to retiring in a few years after a satisfying career that took him from local to national and international activities. He was an extremely wise, intelligent man with great compassion, a lively sense of humor, and keen insight. He was also a good friend to many of us, including me, and news of his death is already filling the ether with shock and grief.

“Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord. And let light perpetual shine upon him.”


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What I Believe

Stained glass angelThe mother of one of my colleagues died last weekend. Although I never met her, J told me lots about her mom, both the woman she was and the medical problems she had been facing in the last months.

I went to the wake last night, a little wet around the edges since I went to water aerobics first, and paid my respects to my friend and her family. Wakes make me uncomfortable and are so stilted, yet they are the place where people talk with each other and share memories and verbal support.

This morning was the funeral. I have to admit that, as weird as it sounds, I like funerals. They have a place in the ritual of endings and closure and give the living a place to be comforted with structure and words of faith. Those who attend become The Church in a very concrete way.

When I lived in Boston, my choir sang for quite a number of funerals and I know that liturgy and words of the Episcopal service – but all funeral services are similar. In my tradition, death is named and not turned into euphemistic “passing” which doesn’t fool anyone. It’s important to hear and know both that death is real and that there is life after death.

That is what I believe – that this life is not the end of who we are, that there is a God who is loving and waiting for us when we die. There is no guarantee that life will be easy and being happy and content is up to us. God isn’t going to sit around to strew the path with roses, money and good health.

I believe in free will; God isn’t going to make me do anything or predetermine the choices I make. But He’s not going to prevent bad things from happening, either. What we are promised is that we will not be alone as we walk through our life – and we are not alone in our death, either.

Going to the funeral brought it home again. I was there to be part of the body of Christ, to support my friend and honor her mother. But I was also comforted myself, hearing the familiar words of the lessons and rituals, and singing with a full heart:

I am the bread of life
He who comes to Me shall not hunger
He who believes in Me shall not thirst
No one can come to Me
Unless the Father draw him

And I will raise him up
And I will raise him up
And I will raise him up on the last day

The bread that I will give
Is My flesh for the life of the world
And he who eats of this bread
He shall live for ever
He shall live for ever

Unless you eat
Of the flesh of the Son of Man
And drink of His blood
And drink of His blood
You shall not have life within you

I am the resurrection
I am the life
He who believes in Me
Even if he die
He shall live for ever

Yes, Lord, we believe
That You are the Christ
The Son of God
Who has come
Into the world

And I will raise him up
And I will raise him up
And I will raise him up on the last day

© 1971 G. I. A. Publications


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Family Matters

AngelOne of my colleagues is mourning her mother today. She died yesterday of a brain tumor after suffering for months and moving in and out of hospitals and care facilities, though her death itself seemed very sudden.

We found ourselves talking today about families, about what it was like to lose parents and be the oldest generation. I know I’m incredibly fortunate to be 53 years old and still have both of my parents alive and in good health. Each of my parents lost a parent of their own when in their mid-30’s and most of my friends have buried at least one if not both.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the oldest generation of my family, to not have my parents to visit and talk to on the phone several times a week. They’re not particularly profound conversations but they are chatty and newsy, and we keep each other up to date with what’s happening in our worlds. I diagnose computer problems and Mom shares recipes. Dad always checks to make sure my finances are in order. We all downplay any medical news.

My brother and I have our own conversations about them, of course, wondering how they’re doing and assessing whether forgetfulness is more frequent or how impaired mobility might be. All the legal documents are signed and in order – wills, living wills, health proxies. Funerals have been planned and paid for. My mom even has what she calls her “Boy Scout Folder” with everything legal things, account names and numbers, contact people, even text for their obituaries.

I hope I have my parents for many more years but am realistic enough to know that anything could happen at any time, as my friend here learned yesterday. So I’m extra glad that they’re coming to visit me next month, to see where I live now and the world that surrounds me at home and at work. We’ll have quiet time without the bustle of holiday doings and extra people around. I don’t really know that they will be back up here anytime soon; it’s easier for me to travel to them than for them to come to see me. My dad’s celebrating his 80th birthday in February and I’m hoping the weather cooperates for me to be there to celebrate with him.

Because family matters. It is to be celebrated and cherished, through rough times as well as happy ones, so that there are no regrets about things done or left undone when loved ones are no longer with us.