What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting to Die
How to Prepare For the End of Life
How to face a life threatening illness is a topic not regularly discussed at the dinner table, and yet it is a conversation that we should embrace as death is a life event that comes to us all eventually. Most people, even when diagnosed with a terminal illness with an estimated life expectancy, are never fully prepared to leave this earth. Whether you have an estimated year or a week to live, hospice stands at the ready to help you and your family on your journey.
The most compassionate and helpful thing you can do for yourself is to engage a local hospice service in your community. According to www.hospicenet.org, “Hospice is a concept of care, not a specific place of care. Hospice emphasizes palliative rather than curative treatment; quality rather than quantity of life. The dying are comforted.”
For decades, it was considered cultural and professional taboo to talk to patients and families about death. There was little open communication between doctors about dealing with dying patients and even fewer conversations happening within family households. Beginning in the 1980s, several organizations were founded to address the need to die with dignity, applying a holistic approach to dying. The greatest need was to provide adequate palliative care, which addresses the need for symptom management and relief from suffering at the end of life. Hospice in the United States grew from an all-volunteer movement to a significant element of our health care system.
According to a Wikipedia page on hospice, “Hospice care reduces emergency room visits and inpatient hospitalization which are costly and emotionally traumatizing for the patient and their loved ones.”
Hospice and End of Life
Hospice provides medical care and support for both the patient and the family in areas of medical, spiritual, and emotional support. Physicians, nurses chaplains, and volunteers are trained in caring for people at the end of life. They can relieve pain, reassure you in the face of fear and confusion, and help to explain what to expect when you weren’t expecting to die. These sympathetic individuals serve you and your family at every stage of life, helping you to live as fully as possible until you die. Services can be provided in a care facility dedicated to hospice, within a hospital, nursing home, assisted living center, or at home.
The decision to enter or accept hospice services is entirely up to the patient. Usually, a physician will talk with a patient who has a life expectancy of six months or less and make a suggestion to consider such helpful services as hospice. If your doctor does not bring up the option of hospice services, you should ask about their availability in your community. Loved ones can and should be part of the conversation to help support and encourage the patient to seriously consider their own comfort and well-being in their last months, weeks, and days. Hospice services become more and more valuable as you approach the end of life.
What happens if I go into remission?
If you have a life-threatening illness such as cancer that goes into remission while you’re in hospice, you can leave those services behind until such time that you need them again, whether weeks, months or years later. You are always free to choose whether to seek additional treatment outside the provisions of hospice, which is comfort care and not recovery care.
What can I do to live until I die?
You just learned that you are dying. There is a whirlwind of questions and emotions that can easily overwhelm you. It’s human nature to want to live and to fight for it, but there comes a time when fighting becomes an uphill battle that can’t be won at the end of life.
As strange as this may sound, acknowledging that you are dying is the first step to take to living fully while you are here. You can cope with the reality of your prognosis with the tools you have. For instance, if your diagnosis was sudden and your time short, you may respond with a great amount of shock and denial or anger. This is perfectly normal and necessary to processing what it happening to you. First you will come to acknowledge the fact in your mind, and later, your heart will follow. When your heart accepts what is happening is when you can truly begin to live more fully until you die. You learn to let go of your own future and live in the present moment, enjoying all that you can right now.
Discovering that you are dying brings you to a point where you question the meaning of life, facing fears that you never had before, and what will happen to you and your loved ones after you are gone. There are many things you can do while you’re in hospice; among the most meaningful is to review the highlights and lessons learned from your life and record them. By writing them down or digitally recording your life stories, you can bring clarity to answer the questions, “Who have I been?” “Who am I today?” and “What kind of impact has my life had on the world?”
Once you have embraced the idea of your death, you might enjoy planning your funeral and memorial services. Many people find this tremendously encouraging and uplifting for themselves and their families. You may choose to document your best life stories, values, and beliefs to inspire and connect with the generations of family members who will come after you. They’ll get to know you through your own words. You might even write your own obituary. Many people find it encouraging to write down how they want to be remembered.
Memorial Service Ideas
If you choose to plan your memorial service, there are dozens of ways to commemorate a life well lived. Here are some ways to plan:
A relatively new concept is to hold a celebration of life service in lieu or in addition to a traditional funeral. During these celebrations, an officiant, minister, or rabbi leads the ceremony with your religious-specific traditions, and then those in attendance are invited to come to a microphone to share a special favorite memory they experienced with you.
It is wise to ask your family to have these memories video or audio recorded as they will be treasured in the coming months and years as your loved ones grieve your loss. You can also have a personal historian attend the funeral or memorial services to gently and compassionately interview those who desire to share what they loved most about you or happy memories that will live on in the form of a tribute book to you.
- You can choose what photo of you to be displayed at the funeral and life celebration or memorial services.
- You can choose if you prefer to have flowers sent to the funeral, or have your family start a scholarship or ask loved ones to donate to your favorite charity in lieu of flowers, which don’t have a lasting impact.
- You can even choose a theme for your life celebration service. If you are fond of music, choose the music you want played or sung. If you are fond of cars, have the family create a theme that represents your personality and character.
- A popular thing to do is to create a slideshow video of photos from your life set to music. This is a tremendous comfort to your loved ones as they visually relive those moments with you, truly offering them a chance to celebrate your life.
Above all, be true to your own desires. We are born once, and die once. You can choose to live life to the full right up until the end of life. Your ending will spark and inspire many beginnings and touch the lives of those around you with love and hope and courage. It’s your life; go out leaving behind a legacy of newly minted memories.
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