By Dr Bill Webster
Living requires planning, and so does dying. Often, the worst time to resolve all the things that need to be settled after someone dies is after the fact.

As difficult as it may be, it is a wise family that ensures everything is in place BEFORE the death occurs, because the emotional upheaval of coping with a death is enough to bear by itself without having to make all the difficult and usually permanent decisions that are required.

Standard words to articulate the need for pre-arrangement so far, right? But one family had two opposite experiences which illustrate the point.

Doug Jones, a man in his seventies, in spite of knowing he was very ill with cancer, and ignoring encouragement from family members, stubbornly resisted making any final preparations. He refused to make funeral arrangements or talk about a will, and gave no indication of what his wishes would be. His argument was that if he did all these things, it “would be like giving up and he would die.”

Guess what! He died anyway, and left his family a mess! No-one could agree on the details of the funeral, whether they should respect Doug’s wishes, which they could only guess at, or which of the numerous varied suggestions from family members would be appropriate. Nothing seemed to satisfy everyone! Feelings were running high and this among a family that had always been very close.

The tensions over the funeral were further aggravated by no clear indication of Doug’s wishes regarding the distribution of property and possessions. With no will, there were difficult legal issues to settle. But even deciding on which lawyer should help them through the morass caused great dispute among family members. It wasn’t that people were self-seeking; it was more that they were emotionally drained, and with no guidance, decisions were more difficult. Perhaps it is easier to get upset over a few material assets and possessions than it is to express the grief over losing someone whom you loved. It took many months to settle the estate, and, even worse, several years to restore family feelings.

Cathy Jones, the wife and mother in the family, seeing all this, and hurting more over the dissension than the distribution, determined the same thing would not happen when she died. She returned to the same funeral home a few weeks later and made almost identical arrangements to those of her husband. The next call was to her financial planner, who came and helped make good financial suggestions to maintain her lifestyle and protect her estate. She contacted a lawyer and made a will, adding to that document a thorough list of “who gets what” of her possessions. Nothing of any value was omitted. Everything was down in black and white.

Seven years later, Cathy died, and even though she did not see it herself, her fondest wish was realized. With all the practical matters settled in advance, the family came together and grieved, and then worked in harmony to effect what their mother had wanted.

Was this accomplished just because she had planned ahead? While the family might say that they were grateful for a second chance to “do it right”, it was their mother’s wisdom in clearly making her wishes known that made the difference.

From a grief therapist’s point of view, there is no doubt in my mind that grief is reconciled more effectively when the events round the time of a death bring people together rather than driving them apart. The media frenzy surrounding the “end of life” struggles involving the family of Terry Schaivo has given another indication of the difficulties that can arise when wishes are not clearly recorded. One can only imagine the grief, hurt and even animosity that will linger in this situation. There are many reasons why people should pre-arrange, as we all know full well, not least of which because it can assist in the healing process. This should remind us how important it is to create meaningful forums in which families can talk about and clearly articulate their wishes on such important matters.

Frequently, after a death, many people struggle with numerous "if only's.” Having practical arrangements in place enables them to turn those "If only we had" tatements into “Thank goodness we did."

Dr Bill Webster is a grief counselor, author and well known speaker. He has a resourceful website at www.griefjourney.com where you can read his articles,
watch his TV program or some moving “Moments of Comfort and Hope” or participate in a “let’s talk” forum.