When I sat down to The Descendants (2011) I settled in to watching the movie professionally as well as personally. Why? Because The Descendants is about a family coming to grips with implementing an advance directive. If your driver's license - or Facebook page - declares you an organ donor, you already have part of an advance directive. It is one of the most common advance directives, and among the easiest to put in place.
Advance Directives (a/k/a Living Wills) are legal documents sharing our wishes, should we be unable to speak for ourselves, about what we define as quality of life and end of life care. Dialysis, tube feeding, organ and tissue donation, resuscitation, and breathing machines are also usually covered.
Preparing to write an advance directive, which requires us to really wrestle with what we consider quality of life at the end of life, is one of the reasons people seek me out professionally. I can't help write that directive, but I talk and pray through with folks about what they feel is morally right and the right decisions for them. How we live and how we die are both spiritual issues, and combining them as we do when we prepare advance directives is a spiritual and emotional challenge for many of us.
We overcome one set of spiritual hurdles to prepare advance directives. We have another in sharing our beliefs and feelings with friends and family. Not uncommonly, family and friends feel differently than we do. Sharing, listening to, and respecting our differences can be difficult, but it can also bring us closer together. After all, sharing how we view the end of life and dying is ultimate vulnerability with one another. Being able to share in this way carries our love for one another into a new dimension.
The Descendants does not show the emotionally and spiritually charged process of preparing advance directives, though. It shows a family having a variety of experiences in response to one person's advance directive - anger, sorrow, disbelief, denial, and acceptance. Having completed advance directives, most of the people I meet feel a sense of peace that they have done what they can to explain their wishes. The other piece of that, though, is the rest of us knowing about those wishes, and coming to our own terms with them so that when the time to let go or fight on is there, we're as ready as we can be. If you are wondering how to begin that conversation, one way may be watching The Descendants with your family and friends.
I've had an advance directive for over fifteen years. Yes, I live with a chronic illness and yes, my profession as a minister drew me to considering what I believe about quality of life at the end of my life and how I may die. This year was a year for updating that information, something I recommend every five years or so. Medical technology changes and so do we.
Family members have copies of this directive and so does my primary physician, as well as the contact information for my health care proxy. My medical id bracelet notes the presence of an advance directive, just like my driver's license notes that I am willing to be an organ donor. Advance directives no one knows about, can locate, or are prepared to honor are of little use.
Kathleen Dowling Singh offers a spiritual inventory as we contemplate the end of our lives (and we do not need to know or believe we are the end of our lives to do this inventory). Take time to reflect on the questions of how we die. Set that time aside and honor it, just like you honor the time to work, to be with family, to worship. Share those reflections with the people you love. Attend to their reflections.
Many of us are so afraid to have these conversations, we put them off until it is too late to have them. I know. I have had the same fears and not want to have those conversations with my own loved ones. Indeed, I realized recently that when I thought I had communicated my advance directive wishes, I had not been understood. I'll be making time again in the coming months to have those conversations anew.
Love asks us to be courageous, to take our fear by the hand, and to hold each other through that fear. If we love one another to live well, we love one another well enough to care through the very end. The process of considering and writing an advance directive with your loved ones is one of love's courageous spiritual practices.