Finding empowerment in end of life planning
By Jenn Watt
Published Sept. 13, 2016
Talking about death can be like turning a rusty wheel – it’s hard work getting started, but once in motion, things get easier, says Yvonne Heath.
The longtime nurse and author of Love Your Life to Death wants to change the way we think about death and dying through open discussion and planning in advance.
Way in advance.
“The truth of it is, none of us know when we’re going to die,” says the mother of three. “I’ve done my end of life plan, so when that does happen, my family can … get to the grieving.”
An end of life plan isn’t just about such obvious decisions as cremation or burial, but other pieces that could ease stress for family members left behind: organ donation wishes; a list of people to be notified; dividing property; writing notes to loved ones expressing your feelings towards them.
Heath is scheduled to speak in Minden and Haliburton on Friday, Sept. 16, in two events sponsored by Haliburton Highlands Health Services.
Through her 27 years of nursing, Heath says she saw plenty of pain, suffering and death, but that not all death came with the same amount of suffering. Often, this had to do with how honest all the players were being with one another. And that’s not just within the family.
Doctors and nurses can also have problems with breaking bad news to patients.
“I’ve been present at end of life when people are well prepared and they said, you know what? This is happening and all of my arrangements are done and now we’re going to support each other,” she says.
“I’ve been present when people are pretending it’s not happening – the denial of death – and the suffering is excruciating.”
Planning ahead for death means when illness or a medical emergency happens, the people involved don’t need to be further burdened.
Heath worked for 13 years in chemotherapy and says when someone is facing cancer, the last thing he or she wants to do is talk about planning for death.
“The time when you get a diagnosis or you’re going through chemotherapy is not the time to talk about end of life because you’re already grieving and maybe you don’t feel well and you’re getting these treatments and you’re holding on to the hope for cure. This is not the time to talk about it,” she says.
For her book, published last September, the Port Sydney based author interviewed people ages 11 to 102 about experiences with grief and death. Their stories are peppered throughout the book, which offers up practical advice on planning for death and living life fully.
Thinking about death can also mean talking about what makes life worth living; regrets can be corrected, travel plans can be concocted, the best parts of life can be brought to the fore.
Our society has slowly morphed over the decades and centuries to eliminate death from the process of life, Heath writes in her book. Through the evolution of Western society, the frail elderly are more likely to live in long-term care homes, the aging and dying process removed from daily sight. Those with terminal illness are more likely to die in a hospital than in the home. Again, the dying process is relegated to the medical profession to take care of.
A side effect of this change is that we are less comfortable with death, Heath says, and less prepared for its arrival.
Aside from creating an end of life plan, we can also better prepare for the grieving process.
“I talk about having a post,” Heath says. “Your post is that internal something you can hang onto in times of despair that’s there for you no matter what.”
For some, that post is faith. For others, it may be music, meditation or a personal spiritual path – “something that can create a soft landing for yourself when you’re grieving,” she says.
Our uneasiness with death can also mean a difficulty with comforting those who are ill, or those in the throes of grief. It’s so common that the author says she sometimes gives talks titled “I don’t know what to say.”
When people become trapped by this fear, it can mean that they do nothing at all.
“Just show up,” says Heath.
“I tell people that grief shows no mercy. It arrives unannounced, uninvited, does not care what else you’re going through. It does not care if you’ve had enough. Also, the rest of the world doesn’t stop. If you have someone at home dying, the dog still has to go out, the garbage still has to go out, you need food. The rest of life carries on. We need to learn how to show up for each other.”
Heath’s talk, Love Your Life to Death, is free to attend. She will be speaking Friday, Sept. 16, at 10 a.m. at Hyland Crest auditorium in Minden. The 60-minute presentation will be followed by an open discussion and book signing. For more information or reserve your seat email Brigitte Gebauer at email@example.com or call 705-457-2941.
Heath will also be speaking in Haliburton on Sept. 16 at 2 p.m. at the Haliburton Highlands Museum. That talk is also free.
Copies of Love Your Life to Death can be purchased from Master’s Book Store in Haliburton or Organic Times in Minden or at the event. For more on Heath, her book and other resources, go to www.loveyourlifetodeath.com.