Both my parents have died, my father at 88 and my mother at 81. They led full lives with lots of love and many accomplishments. They chose their own way to die, both of them, and had made arrangements for what would happen next. The conversations we had about their wishes and their final decisions, while difficult, were some of the most rewarding talks we had.
In the early 1980s, when my mom was in her 50s and my dad was in his 60s, I suggested to my three brothers, all younger than me, that we start the conversation with our parents. They were doing some estate planning and it seemed like a good time. We began with a family meeting with all of us at my parents’ home, probably over one holiday gathering or another – I don’t recall. It wasn’t a comfortable topic, but we all knew it was important. At that time, talking about one’s death and related matters was an unusual thing to do, but we started. My parents lived 20+ years more, and we had many more conversations about what they wanted as their circumstances changed, but the start was important. We wanted to be sure we all knew our parents’ wishes on end-of-life care, at the very least.
Over the next 20 or so years, we kept talking about what they wanted, what would make them comfortable. My father grew depressed and his final few years were difficult for all of us. He often expressed a wish to die, but took no specific steps. In the end, as he was about to turn 88, he got pneumonia and was taken from his care facility to the hospital. My mother, who still lived in the family home, and I were with him right away. When we asked him how he was, and what he wanted, he said the medicl staff had said they could give him something to make him feel better. He wasn’t clear on just what that meant. When I spoke with his doctor, I learned they’d planned to give him an antibiotic to fight the infection. I asked what would happen if he didn’t get the drug, and they explained he’d probably die. I explained this to my dad, who then chose not to get the antibiotic. He was moved to a nursing facility and after about two weeks, just after he turned 88, he died of respiratory failure. My brothers, my mother, and I were all with him. On his birthday, we got him his favorite treat, a banana split, and he enjoyed that a lot. We brought in their family dog to say goodbye, with the rest of us. He chose when and how to die, and though it was hard to lose him, we were relieved he’d been able to let us know exactly what he wanted at the end.
My mother took a different path. She’d moved to a retirement place, and we spent a lot of time together, especially after she could no longer drive. Her health was declining … a long-time smoker who’d tried and failed to quit numerous times, she had heart and lung problems. After a visit to her cardiologist, who couldn’t offer hope that her breathing problems would improve. She was using oxygen and hated it. One morning I was supposed to pick her up for another doctor’s appointment. However, I found she had died in her favorite chair. That was a very hard day as I contacted the Sheriff and Coroner, and my brothers and other relatives. Over the next few weeks, however, I realized she had chosen to end her life by taking painkillers she’d been prescribed. Again, this had been her choice. She had actually wrapped up her affairs, and had said goodbye to me in her own way – allowing me to help her shower one last time (the first time she’d ever done that), telling me some family things I’d not known before, and giving me a long goodbye hug.
Both my parents had made arrangements with The Trident Society (sometimes known as the Neptune Society), to be cremated after their deaths. Those final steps couldn’t have been simpler for us, their children. Taking this step, and doing careful estate planning, was the greatest gift they could give us at the end.
My brothers and I miss our parents greatly. We are comforted, though, knowing those difficult conversations we had led to our knowing their end-of-life choices. We’re now having the conversation with our own family members, sharing copies of important documents and encouraging them to think about and make their own choices. … clear instructions on what we want at the end of life, so no one is forced to make the difficult decisions for us.