We don’t have to be rich to protect our families with advance preparation.
If you haven’t gotten around to pre-planning for future end-of-life possibilities — even though you know it’s important for your family’s well-being — you’re not alone. It’s a task that many Americans put off, for a lot of reasons. It doesn’t seem important yet because they’re not planning on dying any time soon; it’s scary to think about their own mortality; they just haven’t gotten around to it.
But if you have made at least some preparations for your death, like drawing up your will, then you’re in good company with none other than “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Riverdale” star Luke Perry. After Perry’s recent shocking death at 52 from a massive stroke, it was revealed that he had at least written a will, and probably also prepared other advance directive documents, despite being well within the “too young to die” range.
“Just in Case”: Advance Preparation for Possible Emergencies
Perry was inspired to create his will after a 2015 cancer scare. He was under 50 then, but he stared mortality in its face when a colonoscopy revealed pre-cancerous growths. Even though he caught it early and was able to fully recover, Perry wanted to make sure his two children were taken care of, just in case.
Four years later, “just in case” actually happened, when he suffered a series of strokes that left him unresponsive and dependent on life support. His family made the decision to remove life support five days after his first stroke, understanding that there was no recovering from what he’d been through. An article in Forbes magazine notes that the fact that this decision was made and carried out reasonably quickly suggests that Perry had also prepared documents giving a family member medical power of attorney, which would allow them to make medical decisions for him when he was unable to.
Without this authorization in writing, a situation like Perry’s could have gone on much longer, especially if you imagine a hypothetical (yet common) scenario in which family members disagree on whether someone should be removed from life support. A disagreement would have meant the family would have had to seek legal permission to end his suffering. Wrestling with probate court would have drawn out an already painful time and brought unnecessary heartbreak to the family.
The work Perry did to lighten his family’s load at the time of his death was probably pretty straightforward. Even for those of us who are not worth millions, as Perry reportedly was, drawing up a will can be a fairly simple task with the help of a lawyer to smooth the process. The medical power of attorney document must have been even easier to complete – the only decision-making required is who to designate to make decisions for you when you can’t. You add your signature to a short document and you’re set.
In effect, preparing your will and a few other basic but essential documents is the least you can do to ease your family’s burden at the end of your life. It requires some mental labor and forces you to face your mortality, but it’s also something you can do in a short period of time and then rest assured that you’ve made a difference for your family’s future.
“Not Afraid”: Planning and Living a Peaceful End-of-Life
On the other end of the same spectrum as advance contingency planning, there’s another kind of end-of-life planning, too. For many people, when they know they’re nearing the end of life, they find peace and self-determination in the process of envisioning and planning a beautiful, perfect transition from this life.
We saw a beautiful example of this in one recently published Legacy obituary for a beloved 85-year-old grandmother in Virginia, Lucy Modrak. She wasn’t a celebrity like Perry, but the story of how she planned for her death could be just as inspirational to anyone who’s been putting off thinking about the inevitable.
“Lucy was not afraid of death and spoke openly about preparing for her next adventure,” her obituary says. She knew her death was approaching — she had spent her last 17 years fighting three different cancers and COPD. As her health worsened, she turned her energies to orchestrating the end of her life.
First, Modrak created a gracious living space in an environment that can be dreary. She turned a sickroom into a special place: “She found joy in redecorating her room with beautiful linens for her hospital bed,” the obituary says, “and always commented on how happy and blessed she was.”
Next, she made some hard decisions, like what should be done with her body after her death. She apparently had a very specific desire for that, since her obituary says she “donated her body to medical research at Georgetown.” Since she knew what she wanted, she was able to make arrangements in advance, which is crucial when you’re considering donating your body to science. Had she left that legwork up to her family to do after her death, they may not have been able to secure a place for her body at a research facility.
She planned where she wanted her ashes to be scattered, and by whom: “Her ashes will be sprinkled in designated places including this July in Vermont with her son Joe Louis and in Gainesville near her beloved dog Willow. She has asked her daughter Annee to take her to many places around the world on her bucket list that she never made it too.” And she organized for her memorial service to be held at the perfect place: “her favorite local winery.”
(Related: How to Pre-Plan a Funeral)
Modrak’s family explained in her obituary what kind of effect all this planning had on them: “She planned everything for her time of death and the days to follow as if she was planning for an extended trip and helped make a very sad time for all of us a little easier. Her thoughtfulness and compassion for everyone remained constant to the end and is a beautiful gift she gave us all.”
It’s clear from Modrak’s obituary that her careful planning for the end of her life was a positive thing. That doesn’t mean there mightn’t have been some scary moments as she came to terms with the fact that her death was approaching. There are few, if any, people who can go straight to calm acceptance when they learn their illness is terminal. But Modrak found space to think about what would happen to her family when she died. Planning her funeral was an incredibly loving act.
There’s not just one way to do pre-planning for the end of your life. You can talk to loved ones about what you want, so at least they know. You can write it down, so they don’t have to remember it. You can create legal documents like a will and power of attorney, so any potential questions are already answered. You can work with a funeral home, so your funeral arrangements are already made.
Any one of these steps is useful, and the more you do when you’re able, the lighter the load on your family as they grieve your death. You don’t have to wait until you have a health scare — you can take steps to pre-plan any time. And maybe, like Lucy Modrak, you’ll be able to use your time to create something truly memorable.