Cepeda: Why it's important to speak openly about your final wishes

Cepeda: Why it's important to speak openly about your final wishes

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Esther Cepeda

My children have known for years that, when I die, I want to be quickly cremated and split evenly among my loved ones. They know I'd prefer a film festival to a funeral, but fancy death plans give hope only to the dying, while funerals provide comfort and fellowship to those left behind.

It is also established family canon that the younger son gets my exquisite playing card collection, and the older son gets my extensive tarot card collection. My husband gets my books and our daughter's ashes.

He understands, though begrudgingly, that no matter how old he is when I die, he is to look for love again, because I don't want him to be alone. Similarly, my sons know that I want them to grieve with the knowledge that, after a while, the wounds will heal and they'll not only survive, but thrive.

Sure, I'm ghoulish — who talks to their kids about death from when they're young, stage-directing dad's dating life from beyond the grave? But if I die unexpectedly, at least my last moments will not be filled with the fear that my most-loved will be left rudderless or confused about what I "would have wanted."

This kind of radical openness about death is not for everyone. For instance, I don't share it with my parents, who, based on their own upbringing, seem to fear that talking about death actually invites it.

Whenever the subject comes up, they get upset — my mom, particularly. As a result, I have no idea what her wishes are. Burial? Cremation? Repatriation to Mexico to be buried alongside her mother? A funeral for her family there?

Same for my dad. I have no idea what he wants, and it's clear that he'd sooner poke himself in the eye than have to endure such a conversation.

As a result, my parents will probably end up with my wishes for them rather than their own for their final days. Everything from whether to be put on a ventilator if necessary, when to "pull the plug" or whether "do not resuscitate" orders should be signed.

This is not the way to go. But it's a compact most of us make with each other, because talking about death is, for most people, so uncomfortable that "whatever happens, happens" is good enough at any given moment.

Ellen Goodman, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, whose columns were syndicated by The Washington Post, co-founded The Conversation Project in 2010. It's a nonprofit organization with the aim of helping start these incredibly difficult talks with loved ones.

"My mom was one of those people who could talk about your problems until you were bored with them. We talked about everything except one thing: how she wanted to live at the end of her life," Goodman wrote on theconversationproject.org. "The last thing my mom would have wanted was to force me into such bewildering, painful uncertainty about her life and death. I realized only after her death how much easier it would have all been if I heard her voice in my ear as these decisions had to be made. If only we had talked about it."

On the website, there are free "starter kits" about how to actually begin conversations about death and dying with your loved ones and choosing (or serving as) a health care proxy — someone who will speak to medical personnel about your end-of-life wishes.

There are also kits to help you talk with your doctor about your final wishes and to talk to family members who may already be suffering from Alzheimer's or dementia. There's also a kit for having conversations with seriously ill children.

Some are available in up to 13 languages and most in at least English, Spanish and Chinese. There's even an audio version of the main kit, for starting the process of talking about death and dying.

It's not a happy or uplifting topic, but it does have a particular resonance in this time of pandemic and suffering from unexpected disease.

Obviously the very best outcome, and my wish for everyone, is that no one in your immediate family gets sick or dies from COVID-19.

But a good consolation prize would be for people to have these difficult conversations so no one passes away feeling that they took up a resource best spent on someone with better odds or, alternately, sorrowful that their life was not fought for hard enough.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com or follow her on Twitter @estherjcepeda.


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