I’m 32 years old. I have a four-year-old daughter, a solid partner, and a job I love. I’m also planning for the end of my life.
My dad was full of life. He rarely slowed down. Every day was an adventure: heading into the woods, slipping a fishing trip into the weekend, or cooking a steamy meal to share. He also had cancer three times in the past 30 years. Each time, his doctors were unsure whether he would survive — but he always did. This culminated in a stem cell transplant in January 2020, just weeks before the whole world shut down because of a global health crisis.
He died in June 2020. Because he was in critical care during a pandemic and was a cancer patient at a hospital four hours away from his home, our only option to be close to him was to stay near the hospital and wait for calls from the ICU doctors. After 15 days of holding vigil nearby, we were allowed to see him for his last hour of life.
We had planned for his slow recovery. We had not planned for his death. And it turns out, he also had not.
Death planning is a heavy thing. I can’t quite imagine the weight of preparing to have the most intense chemotherapies pumped through your veins, wondering whether your body will hold up, and then looking at a checklist that asks whether you want to be cremated or embalmed.
And then there’s the weight of considering how the people you leave behind will feel about it all. Will they be disappointed by my plans? What if my plans make it more difficult for someone I love? What if my plans for my possessions create conflict for my family?
There might be moments when it seems better not to have a plan. You’re imagining a world in which you are not there. But I’m here to tell you from the Land of the Recently Bereaved: Even a little bit of direction on your final requests can feel like an act of love to everyone who is grieving you.
The days after my dad’s death were full of heavy conversations. Making the call the next day to my two brothers with our bonus mom, “Does cremation sound okay?” All of us saying, “Yeah, sounds okay. Did he say anything to any of you about it? No.”
That repeated heaviness lingered in other important questions, too. The fact that these decisions and conversations must happen so quickly after a death makes the burden heavier to carry in ways that I never expected. I count it as a privilege that I hadn’t yet known the feeling of full-body grief and the level of functioning required for that process.
So. Here I am with my morning coffee and a hot fudge Pop-Tart, planning my funeral.
When I came home exhausted after the weeks of holding vigil near the hospital, holding onto my father while he transitioned, compiling the photo collection, navigating physically distanced visits with family, and the funeral, I saw my daughter in a new light.
I had always felt the weight of sharing the world with her, helping and guiding and supporting her. But I hadn’t yet imagined the world in which I wasn’t with her. When I am gone, how will she know that she has done enough? The answer is that she never has to do anything for it to be enough. But if I don’t tell her that directly, will she know it? What can I do now to lighten the burdens that will come with being alive — one of them being my death?
I’m not currently sick or hoping for death soon. I hope it is many decades from now after I publish outlandish coffee table books, swim in every ocean, and eat far more cinnamon rolls than deemed prudent. But at this moment, I can look at my funeral with a lightness. I can imagine these plans with a far-off feeling to them, viewing them as something that will happen one day but can still be infused with “fun” now — as something I can keep private until I am gone.
And at the risk of being the “we’re in a global pandemic” person, this lightness I feel could change. And if it changes quickly, I could lose this moment of imagination. Now is the time.
But where does one even start?
Scrawling end-of-life ideas into my spiral-bound notebook seems unhelpful at best, so I asked around and found Lantern.co. It offers a free step-by-step guide on how to navigate your life before and after a death. You can generate a checklist to help you navigate the death of a loved one, which I think is pure magic. When you’re deep in shock and grief, a plan is a holy, sacred gift.
You can also generate a checklist for your own plan. These tasks include organizing paperwork to make it easy for your next-of-kin to file for life insurance, providing details for closing bank accounts or selling a house, and preparing notes about how to care for your children.
But my favorite sections involve recording your history and legacy with questions like, “What was the most rebellious thing you did as a teenager?” and “What were the three best decisions you ever made?”
When filling out my final wishes, I gave myself a few goals:
1. Give “easy” guidance in end-of-life instructions. The goal is to lift the burden rather than weigh it down.
2. Reaffirm my love for the people I’ve spent my life nurturing and heckling.
3. Make my partner and daughter laugh.
Here are some choices I’ve made thus far:
· Funeral music? Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize.” If it would bring peace to my mom and grandma, toss in some hymns they love, too. But — for the love of god — no renditions of “I Can Only Imagine.”
· Body status? Cremation, or whatever the cheapest option is. If it’s a long time from now and there’s a mushroom decomposition option, that seems cool. If it would take away from my grandchildren’s college fund, then go budget-friendly! Check Costco for sales. My spirit is bigger than my body. That’s not me.
· What do you want your grandchildren to know about you? My dear friend Andrea told me once that the first time she saw me, she looked out a dorm room window to see me sprinting across the courtyard with no pants on in the light of day. I have no recollection of that event, but I know there was no intoxication involved — just joy. You don’t have to like pants to live a big, full life.
Also, I hold darkness and light in both hands. You don’t have to be one thing. You aren’t broken if you feel like a stormy rain cloud most days — you’re probably just human, and that can be so beautiful. Find a way to express it. If it doesn’t have a little darkness in it, it’s probably not very honest.
· What message would you want to share with your family? Thank you for giving me this beautiful life and for helping me wrap up my spin on Earth with dignity and honesty. No ounce of my love is wrapped up in how well you’ve performed in your grief. You are loved fully, you are enough, and everything I’ve lived has felt like a juicy, generous miracle.
The planning won’t stop.
I’ve set a calendar reminder for each year to review this plan and adjust accordingly as my life changes. When I posted on Instagram about planning my funeral, I was flooded with “Are you okay?!” messages. I was still in the fog of grief while contemplating death, so my friends were concerned when I was more honest about where my brain had been. I clarified: I’m not ready to have my funeral, but I will have a plan ready whenever a funeral is necessary.
That our deaths will probably be one of the most challenging experiences of our dear ones’ lives is something we should all be able to look at more closely. While I can’t take the grief away from them, I would do anything to lift it an inch. Preparing an end-of-life plan feels like an act of care — not something morbid. It feels as natural as pulling my daughter into my lap and smelling her hair.
Plus, I get to make a killer playlist. (Sorry, poor choice of words.)