Don’t die,” my fiancx likes to whisper in my ear. It’s a joke, but also absolutely serious.
It is a truism that all relationships will end, either in separation or in death. We’ve all heard the ominous statistic: half of all marriages end in divorce. But that means the other half end in death.
When my partner and I fell in love, we were hit with an overwhelming sense of “I want to make this last forever.” We started pushing each other to see doctors and celebrated meals of dark leafy greens.
But I’m also a prepare-for-the-worst kind of person, so inevitably, my mind fills with thoughts of mortality.
I think of myself a pretty death positive person. The Order of the Good Death defines death positivity, in part, as a belief “that talking about and engaging with… inevitable death is not morbid, but displays a natural curiosity about the human condition.” Three days into my new job, I found myself discussing environmental burial options and cemeteries around the world with my new colleagues.
My own death doesn’t scare me. But I’m absolutely terrified of leaving my partner in young widowhood. We got so lucky when we finally found each other—can it possibly happen again? Who’s going to make her needlessly elaborate dinners and knit her mittens? Who’s going to console her in her grief?
I’m even more scared that my partner might die before me. Some days, when she leaves the house, I stand by the window and watch her walk away until she disappears from view. The only thought in my head is to make sure that she crosses the streets safely. When I try to plan for it in my head, my latent superstitious side emerges and I find myself knocking on wood.
In an effort to try to alleviate some of these nagging fears, I asked my partner to make a death plan with me. A death plan can be a list, a letter, a Word Doc, or verbal instructions to loved ones about what you want when you’re gone. I consider the Order of the Good Death’s short and irreverent video essential watching; I’ve seen it about a dozen times throughout this process.
My partner and I talked a lot about the Big Questions, and we formed a coherent set of rationale based on our beliefs. We asked each other:
- What is your spiritual worldview?
- What do you want for your body after you die?
- How do you want to be celebrated or mourned?
- How do you define a good death?
- Did you ever attend a funeral/memorial that made you feel comforted and helped you grieve? What about the opposite?
We both want our deaths to be as affordable and low impact as possible. The body holds no spiritual significance for either of us, but we do want to try to do some good. After organ donation, we want the most environmental body disposal within a reasonable price range. Personally, I’m a nerd for green funeral tech. Hopefully, by the time I die, I can have a mushrooms suit! Or alkaline hydrolysis (aka. aquamation)! Or some new way of turning me into fertilizer!
We had this conversation many times, and we continue to do so. Our discussions help me figure out my own values and learn about my partner’s. I was reassured to find that our worldviews and core ethics are more or less aligned.
DEVIL IN THE DETAILS
In large part, death planning has been easy for me, because it’s been an evolving conversation that feels organic and without constraint. Codifying these ideas into legally binding documents? That was a different story, even with all my self-professed death positivity.
Estate paperwork is expensive. It’s a semi-permanent commitment, restricted by legislation. For me, it was the opposite of a dynamic, evolving, organic conversation.
Quite early in our relationship, my partner and I agreed to put in place legal documents that will protect each other financially and name each other as our agents in case of incapacitation. It felt urgent at the time, because we were reading horror stories of same-sex partners being denied hospital visits.
However, when it came to actually drafting the paperwork, my feet froze. I consulted a handful of step-by-step guides to estate planning, like this one (from a Canadian perspective). With my inner nerd awoken, I browsed through my local legal education center’s collection of guides on death and estate laws in my province. Several similarly succinct and definition-filled guides are available from a U.S. perspective, as well as online tools like GYST, which makes the checklists a little easier to manage.
While I determined the general idea of what I wanted, I couldn’t finalize decisions about the details. I want to set aside a trust for my teenage sister, but how much, what percent? I want to leave a password bank to all my internet accounts, but how many of those do I even have? Who do I name to represent my estate if my partner and I die suddenly, at the same time? There were so many scenarios!
Determining the roles for my parents was especially hard for me. The concept of children predeceasing their parents is devastating, and I hate reminding them of the possibility. When I was sixteen and got my first driver’s license, I asked my mom to witness my signature on the organ donor card. She found it quite upsetting, and I can understand. We’ve had a few talks since, but they tend to veer on the vague side.
I procrastinated for so long on the details that my partner and I graduated to adult interdependent partner (or common-law spouse) status automatically. That took some of the urgency out of the equation. It took another life even—a job change—before I finally revised my life insurance policy and sat down with a lawyer to sign the estate documents.
When I took this leap, it wasn’t because I’d had every conversation that I wanted to have. I didn’t make decisions for every possible scenario. Our documents contained the essentials for the most likely scenarios, and we will revise when necessary. And that is good enough.
OUT OF KINDNESS
I was so keen on death planning because I saw it as a kindness and a responsibility to my love ones. I want to ease that burden of making a thousand tiny horrible decisions.
But in many ways, the process also proved to be a valuable experience for me. Our society doesn’t exactly encourage us to explore our beliefs about death in conversation. Discussing these things have challenged me to think differently and reformulate preconceived notions. My death plan is a work in progress; I’m still trying to inventory my online accounts!
Widowhood still scares the living daylight out of me. But in death planning, I don’t have to fear alone or in silence. I can set aside superstition and have a practical conversation about death after love.
Your turn! Have you created a death plan? Do you want to? What scares you the most about it?