The legal preparation for death

As a therapist, you are in a unique position when a client is facing their own death or that of a loved one. You may have the only safe space where they can talk out all that is going on around them without fear of anyone else hearing their thoughts and reactions. That can be huge when conflict is occurring and the time frame is limited. It magnifies the intensity of virtually everything negative.

You are also in a position to hear what they have completed to prepare for the death. Unfortunately, death is also a matter of legalities and business and decision making that has to be dealt with. If left undone, it can make things much harder, and increase conflicts for your client.

This is not to say you should ever provide legal advice. That is far outside the scope of anyone’s practice. You can, however, listen with a third ear for what has been left undone, and provide a framework for not letting things get worse through lack of knowledge. In the same way that you would suggest that a client who is facing dementia get their affairs in order before they no longer have the capacity to do so, a family facing a death has “stuff” to get done. If it is done sooner it will allow your client to process that emotions around it, and it will make the dying process easier in some ways.

What are they?

  • Powers of attorney, both durable and medical
  • A DNR (Do Not Resuscitate Order) or POLST (Physician’s Order Regarding Life Sustaining Treatment) with the dying person’s wishes clearly spelled out as they choose.
  • A Trust or will or simple will. In California the Bar Association has a Simple Will available for a free download on their website, with directions.
  • Funeral arrangements- cremation, burial, donation to science, a combination? If the dying person signs their own arrangements, nobody can change them after their death. If there is going to be a conflict, that’s one way to avoid it. It can also alleviate the probability of family spending emotionally, not prudently, after a death. Overspending makes the grief process much harder because debts become involved from a service they may not have wanted but were pushed into.
  • Burial/interment/scattering? Where? Are there ashes of another loved one to be interred or scattered with them? Where are they? (yes, really. People do lose track of ashes).
  • Plans for a service, if one is desired. Many people facing their death or that of a loved one want to get that stuff done, so it what was desired.
  • If no service is planned, does your client need an alternative so they can have a memorial of their own in some form?
  • Does the dying person want a party or wake while they are still here?
  • Obituaries- who will write it, and who will be included?

I am not suggesting that you provide advice in any way as to what the decisions might be. But if you look at that list, and imagine it done before someone dies, can you see how much easier the afterward will be, when thinking is cloudy and emotions are raw?

Thank you for doing the work you are. It matters.