God has blessed me with a ministry that tends to minister to those who are terminally ill. It is not a ministry I chose, nor would I have if I had been given the choice.
However, it is a calling that I embrace. I have had the honor of standing by a holy man of God’s bedside as he passed from this life to the next. His death was horrifying in its manner as he bled to death. Despite this and maybe in spite of that, his final acts on this earth were to sign that he loved us and to make the sign of the cross. His faith was strong to the very last moment.
I have been at the bedside of those who simply fell asleep never to wake again. Recently, I stood by the bedside of a very dear friend and co-worker in the church as she took her last breaths on this earth. She was unconscious when she slipped away, but something in her face said that she had found the gates and had been welcomed by the great cloud of witnesses. It was peaceful, painless and without any drama. It is what we all would hope our deaths would be like.
Then the nightmare began. Actually, the nightmare started when she was first admitted to the hospital four days before. It was discovered that despite having been diagnosed with cancer, despite the diagnosis that there was no further treatment available for her, she had not followed through with her final plans. She had no Power-of-Attorney, no Living Will, no Advanced Directive, and no Last Will and Testament. She had made no plans, other than those she verbally told those of us close to her. So when she was admitted to the hospital, unable to speak for herself, they did what they thought was best and intubated her (they put a tube down her throat to help her breath). This was not the kind of thing she wanted. In fact, she had been very clear that she wanted no tubes, no machines, and no heroic measures at all. However, because these wishes were not on paper, they did not matter.
Eventually we managed to contact her last remaining relatives (who lived on the other side of the country) and they ordered the hospital to remove the tubes. When they did and she was conscience again, she was very thankful to have the tubes gone.
Fast forward to the night of her death and I am sitting there next to her bed. She had just expired less than 30 minutes before and now the nurses were needing to know where to send the body, which funeral home she wanted. When they asked the family, they responded that Fr. Greg (that would be me) would handle on that. Really?
She never spoke with me about those things. I had tried to get her to talk about it, but like most people, she thought she had more time. After all, why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?
We finally found a funeral home and made the tough decisions. That in itself was a mess and we almost did not have her remains for the funeral, but I will save that story for another day. Then there was the matter of a funeral, all her worldly possessions, and notifications to friends and family and on and on.
So why I am telling you this story? It is simple really. I want you to see the nightmare that was left for the living all because my dear friend did what she did best, procrastinated. It would have taken an hour or less to fix these issues, to have the paperwork drawn up and signed. However, she put it off.
I am willing to bet that most of you reading this article have done the same thing my friend did. Most of you have probably put off making your final arrangements thinking you have all the time in the world. We as clergy should know better. After all, we see death and dying on a regular basis. Yet we tend to forget or ignore our own mortality and the problems we will leave for the living by not being prepared.
So what can we do to make things easier on the living? Here are a few suggestions on how to lighten their load when your end comes.
1. A Living Will
A Living Will (sometimes called an Advanced Directive) is just what it is called, it is a Will stating your wishes should you still be alive but unable to communicate. This is the number 1 most important document all clergy, all people, should have. This takes the guess work out of the equation when you are lying there, your family is emotional and they cannot think rationally. This gives the doctors and hospital a clear idea of what you wanted in this situation.
An example of this is the following:
In determining your wishes, think about your values, such as the importance to you of being independent and self-sufficient, and what you feel would make your life not worth living. Would you want treatment to extend life in any situation? Would you want treatment only if a cure is possible? Would you want palliative care to ease pain and discomfort if you were terminally ill?
Although you can’t predict what medical situations will arise, be sure to discuss the following treatments. It may help to talk with your doctor about these, especially if you have questions.
• Resuscitation. Restarts the heart when it has stopped beating (cardiac death). Determine if and when you would want to be resuscitated by cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or by a device that delivers an electric shock to stimulate the heart.
• Mechanical ventilation. Takes over your breathing if you’re unable to do so. Consider if, when and for how long you would want to be placed on a mechanical ventilator.
• Nutritional and hydration assistance. Supplies the body with nutrients and fluids intravenously or via a tube in the stomach. Decide if, when and for how long you would want to be fed in this manner.
• Dialysis. Removes waste from your blood and manages fluid levels if your kidneys no longer function. Determine if, when and for how long you would want to receive this treatment. 1
These Wills can also be used to stipulate if you want to be an organ donor or not. It is important to have these documents signed, notarized and to give them to family or friends who will need them in the event something happens to you. Some states require that these documents be filed with the state in order to be legally binding. Check the laws in your state before proceeding.
2. Power of Attorney
This document is just as important as a Living Will. This document appoints someone you trust to act on your behalf should you be incapacitated or incompetent. There are various types of Power of Attorneys, however, the two most popular are the Durable Power of Attorney (or in some places called an Enduring Power of Attorney) and a Health Care Power of Attorney (also called a Health Care Proxy in some places). The Durable Power of Attorney can cover more than just medical issues as it can grant a person the ability to sell property or conduct business on behalf of the individual granting the POA. The Health Care Power of Attorney typically only covers healthcare decisions.
While it might be good to have both, in most states you can have a Durable POA with healthcare POA language in it and they will honor it. However, each state is different. So you will need to check with your state to be sure.
The other question you might be considering is that if you have a Living Will do you need a Power of Attorney as well. The answer is yes. The Living Will cannot cover every possible situation and it is always good to have someone you trust who can make decisions should there be a situation that arises that is not covered in your Living Will. Do not assume that just because you are married that your spouse will automatically be your POA or that their wishes for you will be honored. In most states, they will not honor their wishes if you have not specifically given them legal authority to act on your behalf.
As with most things this important, it is better to be safe than sorry.
3. Last Will and Testament
While many people think that writing a Last Will and Testament is old fashioned or only for those that have lots of money and property, this is simply not true. A Last Will is very important if you want to keep what little property and money you have out of probate and in the hands of your loved ones. Without a Will, your property and money will be placed in probate and in some cases that means that no one can live in your house or utilize your banking accounts until the probate process is over.
For those of us who are clergy, a Will is important for several different reasons. If you want to leave any property you own (ie. Vestments, church wares, ect) to your parish or Jurisdiction, then a Will makes sure that those items go where you want them to and not an auction house or pawn shop.
Your Will also gives you the opportunity to lay out your funeral arrangements. Are there special prayers or hymns you want at your funeral Mass? Include that in your Will. Is there a funeral home you want to handle your remains? Do you want to be cremated or buried? Which cemetery do you want to be laid to rest in? All these questions can be answered in your Will. This takes the guess work out of your final arrangements and makes things so much easier for your loved ones and friends.
Like with the Power of Attorney, it is best and in some states required that you name an executor of your Will. This is someone you trust who will make sure your Will is followed to the letter. They will be responsible for making sure your property is divided up the way you want it to be. Just like the Power of Attorney, the executor of your Will is not guaranteed to be a loved one unless you spell it out in your Will.
If you want to go the extra mile to ensure a smooth process after you pass, you might want to look into prepaid funerals and burials. While it may seem morbid, it is only acknowledging the inevitable.
Most of these things seem to be common sense things, however, we tend to overlook them and think that we can deal with them later. In many cases, later never comes and before you know it you are exiting this world and leaving a nightmare behind for your loved ones. If you follow these suggestions, the peace of mind you will be giving your loved ones will be invaluable.
We will have more information and links to resources to help you with your final planning on our website at http://www.convergentstreams.org.
The Right Rev. Gregory Godsey, OSFoc is the Managing Editor of Convergent Streams. He is the Presiding Bishop of the Old Catholic Churches International and the Bishop Ordinary of the Diocese of Saint Maximilian Kolbe (AL, FL, GA, and SC). He is also the Director of the Office of Communications and Media Relations for the OCCI. He lives in North Augusta, South Carolina with his wife and son.