A final act of love

It’s something none of us want to think about. But preparing for your passing can spare your surviving family members worry and confusion in a time of grief

No one wants to talk about death and dying. But sadly, this past year has been a year of many deaths— many of which left families with grief, questions of what to do, and whether there were any last wishes.

“I know no one wants to plan their funeral, or talk to their family about it,” says Shannon Arsenault, a family services counselor with Dignity Memorial, “but think of it this way—it’s all about how you want to be remembered. It eliminates the questions and lingering guilt, ‘is this what they would have wanted, and did I do the right thing?’” Arsenault says it’s a way for a person to choose what is important for them, while including their family in his or her wishes. She also advises to choose a funeral home wisely, and to make sure you get the options and the service you want.

“When you plan ahead of time, you are thinking with your head, not your heart,” says Arsenault, “and by including the family or a spouse, you’re relieving an emotional and sometimes a financial burden. With all the details in place ahead of time, it gives the family and friends chance to genuinely grieve and not have to worry about details.”   

Advance care planning is exactly what it sounds like. It’s about planning and thinking about how you would like to be taken care of if you can’t make decisions for yourself. “This is not a will or a power of attorney,” says Louise Hanvey, a registered nurse, and a volunteer with Compassionate Ottawa. “This is planning for health personal care.” Think of it this way—what if you were in an accident and were unconscious? Who would you want to make the decisions about your care and choices of treatment? Having an advance care plan in place would make sure it’s your chosen substitute decision maker deciding what’s best for you, as per your wishes and values. “In Ontario, everyone has an automatic decision maker,” says Hanvey. “Usually it’s a spouse, parent or child—according to a prescribed list. But you can change the person at the top of the list with a power of attorney for personal care and name the decision maker you want.” Hanvey says she knows these are not easy conversations to have, either with your family or who you choose to be your substitute decision maker. She says that most people have a sense of relief once they’ve made their choices. “If anything, COVID has shown us why planning is important,” says Hanvey. “We’ve seen many younger adults left incapacitated. Having a plan in place is beneficial for everyone.”

If you’ve been named executor of your parents or a relative’s estate, “get ready to ‘hurry up and wait,’” says Sarah Bowie, certified executor advisor with Bowie Financial. “You will be in a hurry, but you are going to need to wait for tax and numerous other documents before you can settle the estate.” And just as you can pre-plan your funeral, and have an advance care plan in place, you should have everything in place for your executor. If you know you’re going to be the executor of your parent’s estate, have a conversation with them about their assets, says Bowie. Find out if there are assets outside of the will, pension benefits that live on, accounts/assets outside of Canada, or life insurance policies. “Did you know that in the United States, there is over one billion dollars of unclaimed life insurance?” says Bowie. “Lots of people keep life insurance a secret… the secret is that no one will get that money if they don’t know about it.” Bowie says a will can provide a plan but there may still be challenges, so putting all the estate documents in one place along with pertinent information is key.  “This is not going to be a fast process,” says Bowie. “You should take time to get organized and make sure you have everything to settle the assets, complete the estate administration return (probate), and do the income taxes.” She also says that if your parents want all their children to be named co-executors, make sure that for signing purposes, it can be an ‘or’ instead of needing everyone’s signatures. It will make things much easier and faster. Bowie also says, don’t confuse power of attorney with executor, they are different functions. The bottom line is to do the fact finding while everyone is alive. “I know no one wants to have that talk with their parents,” says Bowie, “but it will help you understand your parents’ wishes without needing a seance.”


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