Tough Conversations About Death & Dying

When my son died quite unexpectedly by suicide, not only was I traumatized by his death, but I was left making decisions I had no idea if it were what he would have wanted.

Would he want to be buried or cremated? Would he want his organs and tissues donated? What was to be done with his belongings? What would his preferences be for a memorial service? Who would be responsible for his finances? What a mess he left! Uncertainty and confusion prevailed.

To say the least, without his opinion, expressed or written, I was left to make my best guess on almost everything. This caused a ruckus between his father and I, of whom I am divorced.

While it was agreed that a memorial service outdoors would be ideal, it was not realistic. For Pete’s sake, his service was December 21, in Colorado where it could be snowing with temperatures in the teens.

Our option was an indoor venue. But what one? The traditional funeral parlor would not accommodate expected guests. I knew in my heart that his memorial had to be at a church. No question about it. A pastor needed to officiate it. No question about it. It had to be large enough for those would come to say goodbye, celebrate his life, and support his family. No question about it.

This decision encountered resistance from his father who is possibly agnostic and did not like the idea of a church service. I am a Christian and stood my ground that the service would take place in a church. That decision was based on what I wanted, not sure if this would have been Connor’s wishes. I preferred to not have argued over this. It made an already traumatic and difficult time even more so.

When it came to cleaning out the room he rented and the belongings in it, all decisions were based on the answer to this question, what would have Connor wanted? Furniture was gifted to the house and his roommates. They could use it. His tie-dye t-shirts were distributed to his friends. His skateboard went to his cousin. Hats to his sister. T-shirts to his other sister. His overcoat to me. His father received a sculpture.

What to wear at Connor’s funeral was even a point of contention between his father and I. Connor had a tradition of wearing tie dye t-shirts under his dress shirt on Friday’s so it was befitting to invite those attending his service to wear tie-dye on Friday December 21. I wore tie-dye in his honor.

Connor and I never talked about after life arrangements. Would he want to be buried in the same cemetery as his sister and grandfather or be cremated? If cremation, then where would his ashes go? They are being spread at places the girls and I visit that he would have loved himself.

It took two years to decide where to place his memorial. We had to guess. Where would Connor want it? It is at the skatepark where he learned to skateboard.

I did know Connor was an organ donor. He registered as a donor with his Colorado driver’s license. Unfortunately, due to the timing of his death and the way in which he died, the one thing that I knew for sure, could not be granted.

It would have been so much easier knowing his wishes and never having to guess the answers. While our decisions were made with Connor in mind, they were difficult and challenging to presume the right answer.

But what if he and I would have had that tough conversation? A conversation about his wishes after death. It would have made the process manageable knowing without a doubt what he wanted.

Is this an easy conversation? No, it is not. I think having this conversation is practical and invaluable though.

When my mom passed away, she had all her dying wishes in writing, down to the songs she wanted for her service. As a family, my brother, mother, and I had this exact discussion. That conversation circumvented any questions, squabbling and confusion. We were able to focus on our grief and that of our friends and family.

This conversation is relevant to everyone. As a parent of underage children, ask the other parent the hard question what you would do if something happened to one of your children. For yourself, discuss with your spouse and children, those who will be involved in making funeral arrangements or managing your dying wishes. Would you want yours or your loved one’s organs donated? What are your wishes for burial or cremation? What would you want to have done with your belongings?

While not legally binding, you can share your desires verbally, it is a place to start. To make it legal and binding, I recommend meeting with an estate attorney who can put your wishes in order. I cannot express how important this is. Prevent others from more pain and suffering after your death.

As you make your wishes known, consider registering for organ and tissue donation. There are thousands of people who are in need. I am registered and my family knows it.

I wish to be cremated and my ashes spread in the mountains where my family travels, hikes, and camps. Take me with them. Ice-cream at my memorial is guaranteed with lots of chocolate: chocolate ice cream , brownies, hot fudge, and peanut M&M’s. If I had not shared this with them, they just might be serving finger sandwiches and coffee (of which I never have learned to like).

Do not be afraid to open the doors for this conversation. Your loved one will be grateful. You will also appreciate it knowing your dying wishes will be carried out.

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