One of the greatest gifts my father ever gave me was planning his own funeral.
When my seemingly healthy, physically fit father was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer last year, he went to his financial planner and made sure my mother would never have to worry about a bill. WIth Mom’s help, he cleaned out the attic so my brother and I wouldn’t have to sort through piles of “collectibles,” junk, and memories. He went to the funeral home, picked out a casket and plot and paid for everything in advance. He updated his will and made a living one. Carefully, he told my brother and I he had done all of this, assuring us our inheritances were set. I didn’t want to hear any of it. I knew—just knew—he’d beat this thing. Kidney cancer was a bizarre diagnosis for an optimistic, easy-going sixty-something who never suffered more than a bad cold for as far back as I could remember.
I was wrong. After my mom, brother, aunt and I watched him take his last breath on a cold Sunday morning a month ago, we were immediately thrown into the frenzy that happens when a man with many friends passes on. Among the numerous calls, emails, visits, and covered dishes, we spent a long afternoon with a kind funeral director who had what seemed like thousands of questions.
Three-quarters of them had already been answered, thanks to Dad’s planning. The rest weren’t too difficult because we knew what he would have wanted; he’d either told mom or conveyed the answers to us kids. The process still took a good four hours and our biggest decision was which songs we wanted the soloist to sing. I couldn’t imagine enduring another minute that afternoon, which we would surely have had to do if we needed to select a casket and satisfy the bill (no small price tag, these funerals). In retrospect, I realized my brother and I had time to write the tributes we gave at the service.
After the last of the well-wishers had gone home and the final casserole put away in the freezer for another day, Mom set about the business of settling his affairs. Once the death certificates came, it took her about a week. Though we’re still writing thank-you notes, the big check list, with items like bank accounts, property deeds, and income for Mom, has been tossed. Instead, my brother and I spend the energy on the slow process of figuring out how the world works with our father not in it.
The burden of Dad’s death was enormous and is still very fresh. Having to make major decisions about the service and sorting through my mother’s financial situation would have sent me to the white-padded cell, I’m sure. There are enough conversations to have without adding major decisions to the heavy load. Dad’s compassionate gift of planning his final passage gave us unbelievable comfort at life’s most difficult, heart-wrenching time.
I write this for parents so you might considering talking to your children about your final passage and planning as much of it as you can. I write this for children so you might ask your parents what they want in the end. If your stuck, the Engage with Grace project and the five questions they suggest answering can help get you started. Though you may not want to discuss it, I can assure you forethought is a gift of love.
First appeared on rd.com, November 29, 2008.