During the process of writing Exit: The Life and Death Planner, Margaret, a dear friend of mine, supported us in this journey, telling us this book was a must for all. As soon as it was published, she bought 10 books, and many more in time, and handed them out to family and friends.
Margaret was a very special person, she volunteered with Dying with Dignity, and was on many communities supporting senior issues. She was a well organized woman; so organized, that she asked me to be her 96-year-old husband’s POA (Power of Attorney) and Health Representative, just in case she died first, but mostly because when she traveled to Scotland each year I could be there to help her husband with the odd bill payment or just be on hand.
In the summer of 2018, Margaret and Jim sold their house and were looking so forward to moving into an assisted living accommodation. However, before the move occurred, Margaret, at the age of 86, ended up in Vancouver General Hospital, dying a few weeks later, never to go back home. I took on the role of POA and Health Representative for Jim, and with Jim being the sole executor of the will, I was left to complete the role of executor also. Within weeks, I had inherited a new person into my life, helping him with all his life events, and dealing with his wife’s death. If you’ve read the introduction to Exit: The Life and Death Planner, you'll know I had done this 15 years earlier for my parents, but for a friend it’s even harder. What did I know about Jim’s life other than being his friend?
I soon discovered the challenges involved in being an executor. I had to empty Margaret and Jim's house, move Jim into assisted living with full care, attend to all Margaret’s estate affairs, call friends and family about Margaret’s death and celebration of life, cancel all her medical appointments, acquaint myself with Jim’s medical team, get new banking set up (a complicated task), cancel Margaret’s reward points and financial cards, her memberships with many organizations, her subscriptions... well the list goes on.
Luckily for me, Margaret was very organized, and with the help of our filled-in book, I had all the information I needed to tackle these tasks. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a lot of work – but having the book completed made it easier. I knew what Margaret's wishes were (yes we had the bagpipes at her celebration of life and her ashes went to Scotland) and I knew where things could be found. (If she hadn’t given instructions about where her safety deposit key was, how would I have found it when emptying out an entire house within a few weeks?)
I never realized I’d need our book so soon, but life is always so unpredictable – so leaving a loved one your information about yourself is a wonderful gift that needs to be done. And I now truly understand why Margaret kept pushing me to complete writing our book. Thank you Margaret, I miss you.
Our guest blog post is by Reena Lazar and Michelle Pante, co-founders of WILLOW. Through coaching, workshops, conference presentations and soon, an online course, WILLOW provides end of life planning tools to help you write lasting messages to those you love, and understand your options around end of life planning and care. To learn more including details about their next free Vancouver event, visit http://willoweol.com.
Please note: a Heart Will is not a legal will. In order to compose a legal will we recommend seeking professional help from a lawyer or notary.
HOW TO WRITE YOUR HEART WILL
Form + Function
Your Heart Will is a platform or tool to help you reflect on your life and create lasting messages for those you love, and/or future generations. There’s no one way to do this and there are many and varied ways to make this your unique expression. There are endless topics you might choose to address and share. These include your wisdom, wishes, values, beliefs, hopes, dreams, ideals, life lessons, regrets, family history and stories about your journey.
What we’re calling a Heart Will is also referred to as an Ethical Will, Spiritual/Spirit Will or Legacy Letter. You may want a copy of your Heart Will to be given to specific people at the end of your life, it may be something you direct others to share at a goodbye ritual or ceremony after you die, and/or it may become an heirloom for passing on within your family or community of friends. For the radicals in the house, you might even choose to share your Heart Will … before you die!
Identify who you would want to have a copy of your Heart Will, when you imagine it being read, by who or to whom. Use the following themes and their juicy questions to inspire or guide your writing or recording. Read the questions below and mark the ones that speak most to you and begin there. Write for 15 minutes a day, and see what you accomplish in one week. You may craft your Heart Will in handwriting on the first go or you might write many drafts on your computer. If writing is difficult, then use an audio recorder and maybe get someone else to transcribe it later. You may be drawn to capturing your messages in a multimedia file complete with audio and visual components. It all works. Trust yourself and trust your process. Like any “will”, it would be wise to review and update this document as life unfolds and things change for you.
Your Story, Your People
“You have begun; and to make a real beginning is the most difficult act…
A good beginning is half the work.”
John O'Donohue, Benedictus: A Book of Blessings
As part of our guest blog series, we are delighted to post this article by Julie Keon. Julie is a Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant specializing in funerals, and offering ceremony and ritual to honour all of life's big transitions and moments. She is also a death educator. She lives in the Ottawa Valley.
Funerals Are for the Living
I attended a rural high school where all students were bussed in from neighbouring communities unless you were one of the cool kids and had your own car. The student and staff body was made up of farming families and small town folks. There was one memorable class that had a great impact on me. One teacher, who was clearly ahead of her time, offered a death education class. Thirty years ago, this was unheard of and the school board was not particularly fond of a teacher standing her ground and taking a bus load of 16 year olds on a field trip to a funeral home in the nearest city. She told me, years later, that she was often threatened with being fired but she persevered and had a very positive impact on her students as a result.
Recently, I purged my home of everything unnecessary and I came upon an article that I had saved from that class. It was called: “Funerals are for the Living.” I remember reading that handout for the very first time as a young student and how a light bulb went off in my head. My interest in the value of meaningful ceremony was ignited and today I am a Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant specializing in creating personalized, meaningful funeral ceremonies for a living.
When someone dies, we naturally gather as a family and community to pay our respects and honour their life which most often includes a funeral service. Funerals are for the living because they help those left behind cope with the loss, grief and separation experienced after death. A ceremony that is crafted to truly reflect the deceased using carefully chosen words, music and ritual helps those who have gathered to feel a sense of celebration. Oftentimes a deep shift occurs within which helps rather than stifles their grief.
There is a rising trend towards another kind of funeral for the living that can have a positive impact on not only the one being honoured, but on the guests as well. Living funerals are celebrations of life that occur before the person dies. It is a time for people to gather with their loved one who is deemed palliative to, for example, say all of the beautiful things they might have said upon their death. In this way, their words are heard by their loved one. Living funerals also have a way of shining a big bright light on the fact that death is near, that death is a reality of life, and that speaking about it and even celebrating in spite of it, can be incredibly moving, healing and freeing.
I attended my first living funeral in Victoria, BC in 1998. I was working in an art gallery and one of our artists was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She hosted a birthday party at the Emily Carr House, and friends and colleagues gathered on a sunny day to honour her life with her instead of without her. There was story-telling, laughter, artwork, beautiful poignant speeches, and the sharing of her favourite foods. I had never experienced anything like it and have never forgotten it either. Knowing that her time was short, she wanted to have a celebration to not only mark this last birthday but to celebrate this day and her life. It was a reminder to all of us that we take so much for granted and that all we really have is the present moment~ the future will one day not be ours. Ted Harrison presented her with a beautiful original painting called “The Poet Greets the Sun” and we were all gifted with a reproduction, a keepsake that still have to this day.
Granted, living funerals might be perceived as narcissistic and egotistical considering you are gathering your favourite people who may want to talk about how great you are and how much you will be missed. I actually think of a living funeral as having a different purpose. If I knew my time was short, I would gather my most beloved friends and family in a celebratory feast/ dance party where I would tell each of them how they had contributed positively to my life. I wouldn’t be as comfortable with sitting down and listening to kind words being spoken. Putting people on pedestals is not my thing.
There is a way to throw a celebration of this kind that will positively impact the honouree and the attendees. Be clear on what the purpose of it is and then plan accordingly. People need to do what works best for them. If having a living funeral will contribute to a more positive death experience then I say, “Go for it!”
©Julie Keon 2017
So much has changed in the field of death and dying practices, from legislation, to funeral options, to home care. In order to keep our readers in touch with these changes, we are inviting guests to contribute to our blog and share their expertise. We're delighted to welcome Barb Phillips to our website, to introduce us to the role of Community Deathcare Practioners. This is a growing practice wherein compassionate and trained individuals educate, guide and assist families to navigate the continuum of care before, during and after death.
Community Deathcare Practioners: believing dying and death are a natural and normal part of life.
What a great honour it is via Laura and Glenda’s blog, to introduce to many readers the relatively new vocation of a Community Deathcare Practitioner in Canada and the myriad of services this role can entail.
I am so appreciative of what Laura and Glenda have created and produced as a Canadian resource document, to house our thoughts, wishes and personal information in one booklet so those we entrust to complete our end of living plans will have a comprehensive and manageable tool to assist them.
Opening conversations about our dying and death time with those who will be caring for us when needed, is one of the most difficult tasks we as a North American culture undertake.
As an addendum to what the Exit Planner offers my hope is that what I will be speaking to will be valuable information and a resource to augment and support your end of living advance health care plans as well as informing you about the rights of families to conduct your own home based death care, vigil and transportation of your deceased without the assistance, if you so wish, of a funeral home.
Under the Canadian Deathcare Practitioner title lies subtitles if you will, that describe various roles we as practitioners can fulfill. ie: Thanadoula, Death Doula, Death Midwife, Soul Midwife, Home Funeral Guide, Psychopomp, Transition Guide etc.
For myself, Thanadoula/Home Funeral Guide/Life-Cycle Celebrant are the titles to describe how I support others to become more conscious and engaged in pre-post death care and to help minimize fearfulness about dying and death and invite individuals to become more connected to real life.
In simple terms Thanadoula means “ one who serves the dying”.
The Thanadoula role has been introduced in response to families and individuals increasing need to information, knowledge and skills; and the decrease in the number of educators and counsellors who are trained in end of living care. Thanadoula’s are relationally based educators who offer counsel based on family values, beliefs and practices.
A Thanadoula accepts death, dying and grief as normal and healthy components of life and as such models a willingness to bring presence to those areas that our deeply death denying culture would otherwise have us avoid.
Services can include but are not limited to:
Five years ago we published Exit: The Life and Death Planner and now we’ve launched a new website. In the last few years our book has reached clients from California to Toronto, from Australia to England. We’ve had the opportunity to give presentations to seniors groups and we’ve participated in educational seminars and conferences. Along the way we’ve met wonderful people and learned more about the subject of organizing ones affairs and planning for difficult times.
In the next year, we hope to invite experts in various areas to contribute their thoughts and expertise to our blog because this topic is huge, and there is always new information on the subject of Death and Dying. Indeed, since we published, Canadian federal law has changed, and those facing imminent death now have the right to doctor assisted death. Also, when we wrote the book, we were unaware of the services of thanadoulas, end-of-life transition guides. We hope our blogs will give us an opportunity to fill in some of these missing pieces and update the public.
We love hearing from you. Please continue to write and tell us about your own experiences. Meanwhile, we wish you a fruitful, peaceful New Year.
Glenda & Laura