5 Questions to Ask Yourself When You’re Facing Death

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When you’re faced with the knowledge that the end of your life is near, avoidance or denial is such a natural impulse that it seems absurd to be even be starting an article with this sentence. Of course no one wants to prepare for their own death, at least initially. And no one needs to be told that facing mortality is likely to trigger a dramatic self-reckoning, or at least, some rumination. Jill Cohen, a New York-based grief counselor, suggests that asking  certain questions can potentially help people who are dying do a final accounting as well as set priorities for how they want to spend the time they have left.

1. Have I experienced everything I have always wanted to (that is possible for me to experience)?   

The answer to this one will almost certainly be no—we all have things that we still wish for. But if there’s an activity or experience you’ve always dreamed of or always pushed off toward the future, now might be the time to make those plans concrete, if you’re able. Maybe it’s visiting Disneyland with your grandkids, or gathering extended family for a formal photo session, or splurging on an all-time favorite meal at that restaurant your wife jokes costs more than your mortgage.

People have a tendency to double down on financial and legal preparations when facing their death. And while those areas are vitally important, you also want to tend to the emotional side of your preparations—and seek out joy, where you can.

2. Is there still something of myself that I can give to others?

Your will spells out who will get which assets when you die. But the time to pass on your knowledge is now. Can you teach your sister how to make your famous rugelach recipe, so the cookies continue to make an appearance at family gatherings? Would you sit with your nephew and niece while they record your family stories, to preserve for posterity? Do you want to inscribe your book collection with thoughts on why each was worth holding on to, so your young grandkids can read your insights when they grow up?

Your loved ones may fret over asking you to expend your time or energy, but if you’re up to it, teaching a beloved craft or hobby or life lesson can also be a low-pressure way to spend time together without actively discussing death.    

3. Have I forgiven those who need my forgiveness and accepted the forgiveness of those who have given me theirs?

It’s easy to put off those hard conversations when you think you have all the time in the world. But when you know your time is nearing its end, mending a tense friendship or reaching out to an estranged loved one can bring an immense sense of closure and peace. If a face-to-face conversation or phone call feels too taxing, consider writing a letter—even if it’s to be shared with the person only after your death. Through writing, you can even work on forgiveness relating to events from long ago, even if you can’t reach the other person.

4. What do I want my last days to look like?

Maybe you want to be surrounded by loved ones for as long as possible, filling your final days with a stream of visitors and well-wishers. Or maybe you want to narrow your scope a bit and die with only your spouse or children nearby. Obviously, you can’t plan those final moments down to the last detail, but planning the broadest strokes of what you want will help you feel slightly more in control of a situation that you very much can’t control.

You’ll also want to talk with your health care team and close family now about what type of medical care you want at the end. Knowing that, for example, you prize being home above all else, or that you wouldn’t consider extensive life-sustaining treatment, or that you have a real fear of being in pain can help shape plans for the future.

5. Would I benefit from more support?

If you haven’t already done so, an attorney can help you create the legal documents for your situation, whether that’s a durable power of attorney so your spouse or adult child can handle all your finances for you, or a will so that your property and assets will be distributed exactly as you wish.  

But don’t assume that professional help is only worthwhile when it comes to legal and financial matters. Even if you’ve never visited a counselor or therapist or if you’ve rarely talked one-on-one with the leader at your place of worship, you can still turn to someone in that role. You don’t have to know exactly what you need from the support, says Cohen. A sense of needing the support is reason enough to reach out.  (Related: What to Say to Someone Who Is Dying.)

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