Who Goes First? Preparing for a Loved One's Death

When loved ones die before us
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How will my life change if my loved one dies first? Although we rarely talk about it, the thought is prevalent in most of us who are in long-term relationships.

I’ve counseled many people who never asked themselves the question. They assumed their loved one would outlast them. “I never thought she would die before me,” a caregiver said at a meeting two months after his wife died. “I’m the one with the heart condition.

Her cancer came on so unexpectedly, we didn’t have a chance to have the type of conversations you always wanted but were afraid to have.”

How to Plan for a Loved One’s Death

There is substantial information available that can enable you to financially and legally prepare for a loved one’s death whether or not it’s imminent. Most of this information involves what I call “housekeeping chores,” important but fairly routine tasks. They are activities lawyers, accountants, and other professionals can assist with, such as setting up trusts, filing taxes, planning for internment, etc.

While there can be financial and legal problems if these activities aren’t done in advance of a person’s death, most are correctable, or their effects can be minimized. However, living with regrets because you neglected to do or say something when your loved one was alive, can create emotional pain that can remain forever.

How to Prevent Regrets

I’ve found regret torments many people following the death of a loved one. “Why didn’t I tell her how much she meant to me?” “I wish I could have taken that hurtful statement back.” “I never forgave her for having an affair, but I should have.”

The solution to not living with regrets is to “clean your plate,” every day.

Instead of allowing something to ferment—sometimes for years, take care of it on a daily basis. Steven Levine wrote a book in which he asked readers to imagine they had one year to live. How would you live it? In my counseling, I shorten the timeline to twenty-four hours. If you knew you would be dead in one day, what would you say to your loved one?

Living Your Life As If It Will End Tomorrow

Since my cancer diagnosis thirteen years ago, I’ve tried to live my life as if it will end within twenty-four hours. When I shared this approach with some people, they thought it was a morbid and depressing exercise.

To the contrary, it has been fulfilling to me and soothing to friends and family. Difficulties in relationships don’t linger. If I do an unskillful act, I try to apologize as soon as possible.  If I’m the recipient of an unskillful act, I try to forgive or at least understand what was behind it. If I’ve received a kindness from someone, I offer my gratitude to them.

I’m seventy, and my wife is sixty-eight.

Will I be upset if she goes first? Of course. But it will be because I lost a loving companion of forty-five years, not because I regret having held back expressing gratitude, offering forgiveness, asking for forgiveness or expressing my love.

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