There are always articles with the top 10 things to do before you die. I am always coming across books in homes with the experiences we need to have or travels we must make before the Grim Reaper makes his visit.
Recently, I have been working with clients who are dying and know they have months left to live. I am often called as there are alterations to be made to their property, so they can have their last days in comfort in familiar surroundings at home.
They need room to move downstairs for example, to locate their comfortable clothes, to make space for the oxygen machine and any mobility aids. They often want to rationalise their medications so they can be kept near them and organised. They may wish to sort out paperwork so they can make a lasting power of attorney, a will, a DNR or just ensure they have their funeral plan all typed up ready. Most just want to get things in order.
More significantly, I find that I am in the business of locating, and putting in one place, sentimental items for family, and photographs for the householder themselves to enjoy in their quiet times. The other joyous function in my work is ensuring the person has access to their hobbies and interests to keep an essential part of them very much alive and making themselves known.
This may be sketch pads and pencils, pots and seeds, music to listen to, or books to peruse. But this part of working with the clients really resonates with me, as this is where belongings show us our relationship to ourselves and our stories. They are there to augment our sense of self, especially when our physical bodies, or even our cognitive functions, are starting to loosen our connection to our personal sense of self.
My clients show who they are by what they want near them at a time when they know there will be fewer days to spend. Sure, there are these practical issues around stuff to resolve, but also it brings an immediacy to the usefulness of our belongings.
I revisited my university essay on the psychology of possessions written over 20 years ago now and read “It is clear that between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine, the line is difficult to draw.” That was written by William James in 1890. The words have never been truer to me as I ensure that sense of self is preserved with those I work with.
I always pepper my articles with a statistic, so here it is: The British Social Attitudes report found that despite most people saying they were comfortable talking about death, less than half of people had discussed what their wishes would be if they didn’t have long to live and only 5% reported having a living will or advance care plan.
There is no need to panic or worry, but we can really do ourselves a favour if we think about what is really important to us once in a while and ensure that is what we do before we die.