May 20th marked the fourth anniversary of my Aunt Kay’s passing. Even though she’s not with us, her memory lives on in my life in a multitude of ways. She taught me how to live life to the fullest.

On her 80th birthday, I joined her in jumping out of a perfectly good airplane – need I say more? She set a beautiful example of how to be prepared for death. She had burial arrangements made years ahead of time and did her estate planning for passing on investment assets.

She gave away her jewelry, told the stories to us, and watched us enjoy her gifts. When we would visit her while she still lived on her own, she would make sure I knew the code to her safe, as well as show me where her cremation clothes were (OK, that part was a bit weird).

I often wonder how I will handle that space when I find myself there. The space where I am no longer thriving in my living but have crossed over into the inevitable chapter of death. I learned things from Kay. Some of them I want to replicate and others I hope play out differently.

Elements I Want to Mirror

Here are two things that Kay taught me which I’m implementing in my own life.

Embrace That Death Is a Part of Life

Death is not something to be feared. Kay was comfortable with it. From life on the farm to assisting a pioneering heart surgeon for over 45 years, she saw death as a natural progression of the living experience.

Family Is Paramount in the Dying Process

Kay didn’t have children of her own but had a large extended family. My mother, her youngest sister, and our family were very close to her. Kay was like a second mother to my sister, brother, and myself. I want to emulate the love of family and hold them close heading into my winter season.

Many people isolate themselves unintentionally. Character liabilities get magnified in the aging process and can push people away. I will continue to work on my shortcomings in order to keep relationships healthy and happy.

Kay was always loving, kind, hard-working, other centered, and joyous. These are the character assets that draw people toward you. Even when she lost her words, she would reach out to hold the hand of someone sitting next to her.

Aspects I Want to Do Differently

There are also some things I’d like to do my own way.

A Living Will Is Not Enough

More than a living will that dictates my desires if I become incapacitated, I will talk openly with my family about my desires and how they can walk alongside me in supporting me.

Kay had a boiler plate living will, but she never really discussed the “what ifs” and how she wanted us to handle the potential difficulties to come. She was diagnosed with dementia at 88 and lost her capacity to communicate her innermost feelings and desires about her circumstances.

At age 90, the doctors told us Kay needed a pacemaker because her heart was not functioning as it should. Really? As it should at 60, 70 or even 80 years old? How is a heart supposed to be functioning at age 90?

Because of her dementia, the power of medical attorney was in my Dad’s hands and we as a family lamented about what to do. Kay didn’t have a say and we decided to go ahead with the invasive surgery.

We did not ask questions of the doctors: What will happen if we don’t put the pacemaker in? What could we expect to happen if we proceeded? How much would it extend her life and the quality of it?

We just knew that we loved her, that she still had a smile on her face, and that normally, she wasn’t in pain and was not sick. In retrospect, we should not have subjected her to it. It was the first time in her life that she had been operated on and the recovery was painful.

She was agitated and angry, and scared. I do not want my family to have to go through this, and I will communicate early and often not only where my legal documents are located, but make sure everyone is on the same page with my desires. I want to have integrity in the dying process.

Living life with no regrets is a personal, intentional choice. I believe that dying without regrets needs to be intentional as well and many times lies in the hands of those closest to us.

What conversations are you having with your closest family and friends about that special space between living fully and dying with integrity? Do you have any tips that can make such discussions easier? Please share in the comments below.

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