While a terminal diagnosis comes with heartache and perhaps physical pain, one beautiful thing about knowing the end is near is having time to put things in order and dispel some of the fears that come with this big unknown. Whether it’s your time or a loved one’s time that’s short, put it to powerful use.
Control the Spread of News
How and when to share news of a terminal illness is a truly personal decision. You may want to tell family and friends right away so they can support you, or you may want to take days or weeks to yourself to process the news before disclosing the diagnosis. There’s no wrong way to handle the timing, but don’t hold off telling people the news because you’re afraid of burdening them. Anyone who truly cares about you will want to be there for you now.
When you’re ready to talk to people about what’s happening, you may want to tell your closest loved ones personally, then ask one of them to be the point person for telling other people in your life. For instance, you may ask a sibling or younger niece or nephew to spread the news via email, in person, or by posting a message to social media. Let the point person know if you want people to reach out to you or give you some privacy.
We often hear about people “putting their affairs in order.” That process typically involves several steps.
- Visit an estate planning lawyer to create a last will and testament or to update the will you already have.
- Create an advance directive. Use this document to name the person you want to have power of attorney and the authority to make medical decisions for you if you’re unable to make them yourself. Your lawyer can help with this, but you can also find a template for this form that you can fill out yourself. Search “advance directive” and your state’s name online. Before completing this form, talk to your doctor about what your final days might look like. Knowing what to expect will help you make end-of-life decisions like whether you want pain medications and whether you want to receive treatments that could prolong your life.
- Gather together any financial and personal documents that your loved ones may need. Your birth certificate, Social Security information, copies of bank account numbers, insurance policies, property records, stock information, credit card information, and military records are just some of the documents you’ll need to gather. You’ll also need to collect any keys and passwords that your loved ones might need to close accounts or collect your belongings; for instance, find the keys for any safety deposit boxes or storage units and make a list of the passwords or PIN numbers you use for personal accounts. Think about anything that needs to be handled after you’re gone and leave instructions or paperwork that will help your loved ones with those processes.
- Pass important possessions, such as jewelry or keepsakes, to family or friends. Your will should include information about who will inherit your things, but you may want to personally distribute cherished belongings.
Make Funeral Plans
You may or may not want to personally manage your funeral plans. If you want to plan things yourself, choose a funeral home and meet with the funeral director to do things like choose a casket and talk about how you want your remains handled. You may also want to purchase a burial plot if you don’t already own one.
If you don’t care to make those plans yourself, leave thorough written instructions for your loved ones to follow. Disclose whether you want to be cremated or interred. If you choose cremation, leave directions for what should be done with your ashes; if you choose interment, share your wishes regarding where you want to be buried or entombed.
Be sure to express what type of memorial services you wish to have. Specify whether you want a wake, whether you want the casket opened or closed, whether you want a traditional funeral or a more joyful celebration of life, who you want to be pallbearers, and what music or videos you want to have played.
Plan Your Time
Your doctors should be able to give a rough estimate of how your remaining time will play out and how ill or well you’ll feel at any given time. So when thinking about how to spend the remainder of your life, put the most important things first. Prepare letters or recordings to leave for your loved ones. Visit your favorite places, if geography and your mobility allow. Schedule time to visit with friends and listen to your favorite music. Settle any disputes or issues that you feel need closure. There is literally no better time than now to try to cross things off your bucket list.
Be direct with people about what you need from them and when. Some days you may be angry and want to be left alone, and some days you may want friends to sit by you and tell funny stories or cry with you. Whatever will give you the most comfort is exactly what you deserve now.