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Are my end of life plans meant for me or for the loved ones I will have left behind?

In a workshop I led recently for young people in their 20s about end of life planning and how they can talk with their (mostly older) loved ones about it, a young woman asked a profoundly important question: “Are my end of life plans meant for me or for the loved ones I will have left behind?” I wish I’d taken a moment before I responded.

I recently led a workshop for young people in their 20s to get them thinking about what conversations they might want to have with their (mostly older) loved ones to get a better sense of what is important for them at the end of their lives. I also had these young participants begin considering these things for themselves. Like all of the conversations I have about death and end of life planning, I talk about a values-based death and we start with thinking about the values that are important to people’s lives and those things that make life meaningful. People think I’m going to immediately give them checklists, but without a strong foundation on values, some of those checklist items would be really hard for people to really address.


On the second day, when I finally did provide some concrete planning steps and “to do”s, a young woman named Maria asked a profoundly important question: “Are my end of life plans meant for me or for the loved ones I will have left behind?”


Maria could have been asking whether the process of going through end of life planning now, while she is far far from needing it, will make her feel better or whether it will unburden the ones she leaves behind from having to do all the work. On this surface level, the answer would be both. It will certainly save her loved ones a lot of time and guesswork, worry and self-doubt about getting it “right.” But it will likely also make Maria feel good about protecting them from that labor and feel unburdened, herself, from having to do that hard work again, save an occasional revisiting of the points she includes in her plans.


But Maria—very thoughtful on these issues for someone her age—had a deeper meaning to her question. Maria was asking: “When I make these plans for the future, should I be telling my loved ones exactly how I want everything to play out even if my current desires might be uncomfortable for them, or should I be thinking about their likely psychological state at my death and include plans for what they may be needing the most?” Like any meaty question, the answer is “it depends.”


Yes, it is the case that many of the plans you make for your end of life—particularly plans for the handling of your body and your possessions after death, any memorialization or legacy project—will be carried out once you are gone and not there to experience it. For these elements of an end of life plan, it may be reasonable to think about the people who will carry these things out or upon whom your decisions may have an effect. Are there decisions that you make now that would ease the burden of time or emotion for them? For instance, if you truly don’t care whether you are cremated or buried and you know it would mean a lot to a loved one for your body to join those of other relatives in a family plot, you might choose to write a burial into your plan or just explicitly state in your plans that this element is not particularly important to you and that you are not opposed to it.


For the elements of an end of life plan that truly deal with your last period of life, however, those before your death, I would say that your plans are made for you. How can you remain true to your values and your beliefs throughout your life to the end? Here is where compromise or making decisions based on someone else’s needs feels more difficult to me. To me, I’m the only one who should dictate what type of state I’m in, what kind of care I receive. That is why I believe durable power of attorney for medical care designations (medical proxies) are so important. They state who can speak and make decisions for me if I am no longer able to do so myself. And my proxy will know what I want and not just act based on what they want.


But some people are unable to decouple their desires for how they live out those last days from how they think other people would want that period of time to be. They want their loved ones to be comfortable–whether psychologically or spiritually—regardless of whether it is in line with what they might chose for themselves. If this is how you feel right now, there is nothing wrong with that, so long as you consider two things.

  • First, make sure you don’t base your plans on assumptions you have about what your loved ones would feel comfortable with. Have the discussion with them. Talk about what feels right to you and how you have concerns that they might feel more comfortable with something else. They may surprise you. Or they may be able to clarify what the root of their needs are and you can tweak only one part of the plan to suit those needs.
  • Second, over time, the very people that you are trying to please may change their tune on some of the things they think they need now. It is worth revisiting these things with them frequently.


So it comes down to this: If you feel so strongly about an element—before or after death—that it feels non-negotiable to you, stick to it. This is your plan, after all. But if there are things that don’t matter as much to you and you know would mean a lot to your loved ones if they were a certain way, you may want to plan with them in mind. In either case, having a conversation with your loved ones about your end of life wishes and why each element does (or doesn’t) matter to you shows them that you are thinking about their reactions to your plans and you want them to understand where you are coming from. After all, they are called your loved ones for a reason.