The Freedom of Planning for Your Own Death
When Amy Pickard’s mom died in 2012, Pickard found herself totally inundated with details to handle—in addition to a funeral that needed planning, there were endless logistics associated with settling her mom’s affairs. Who had keys to her house? Passwords for her cable and utilities accounts? Who was entitled to all her personal items, like photos and journals—and whose job was it to sort through them? Pickard—like almost everyone will at some point in their lives—was consumed by dealing with the very last things she wanted to think about as she was trying to mourn.
In an effort to improve the system (or lack thereof) that failed her so miserably, Pickard founded a company, Good to Go!, aimed at preparing people— from patients in hospice to healthy twenty-somethings—for their own passing. In the process (and in many ways thanks to her lighthearted, unapologetic-rock-groupie personality), she’s hoping to help spur an already-growing movement to rethink our approach to end-of-life issues, both logistically and spiritually. Below, she shares some of the biggest lessons she’s learned about death:
A Q&A with Amy Pickard
How does your process work?
I’ve found it’s best to address end-of-life issues in a relaxed atmosphere with humor and cocktails—as opposed to the midst of some medical crisis. So I usually take clients through the G2G curriculum during a party in their home: Everyone brings a potluck dish to share—based on a loved one’s recipe—and a cocktail of their choice. The experience is infused with both a sense of humor (and a death-themed rock-and-roll soundtrack) as I guide people through the Good To Go! Departure File. The whole process takes about three hours.
“I talk about death and dying with my clients, but it’s really about the life they lead now—and how they want that life expressed when they die.”
Some of my clients prefer a one-on-one consultation, so I go to their home and guide them through the paperwork (and every summer, I also drive across America giving Good To Go! pop-up parties). I also do private consultations by phone or Skype. I talk about death and dying with my clients, but it’s really about the life they lead now—and how they want that life expressed when they die.
Can you describe some of the more difficult logistics that loved ones have to handle after people pass on?
You mean besides all of them?! After my parents died, I just wanted to be carried around like Cleopatra and to have The Rock platonically spoon me and tell me it was all going to be okay! I didn’t want to become the organizer that dismantled my parents’ lives. When you’re grieving, your brain needs emotional space to reflect on the love you had for the departed and the love they had for you, rather than being forced to figure out online passwords for bills, write an obituary, and plan an entire funeral with no guidance.
The most difficult task is making the ‘big’ decisions that have to do with body disposition. If you don’t have a plan in place, loved ones have to guess—and more often than not, feelings are hurt. Almost all of my clients have had family members do crazy things after someone dies—in one situation, three siblings thought their Dad wanted to be cremated, and the fourth thought he wanted to be buried. The burial had a much more expensive price tag, and it drove a major wedge between them. In my family, an estranged uncle picked up my Granny’s ashes from the funeral home—even though I knew she wanted to be buried next to my grandpa, he was closer next of kin.
People need to overcome their fear of advance planning. In a way, not planning is selfish: it’s not fair to place the burden of uncovering your wishes on anyone other than yourself. One of my clients had to organize two life celebrations for her father in two different cities, and told me that because of his sudden passing—and the fact that he left NO paperwork behind—it felt like planning two weddings in two weeks, with no instructions, while experiencing deep, cosmic pain. When it was all over, she lived with the guilt of wondering if the decisions she made would have met with her dad’s approval. This could have been 100% prevented had her dad faced the truth that he would die some day, and acknowledged that death can happen at any time—even when you’re young and healthy!
What are the emotional consequences/benefits of thinking about your death in advance?
No one has ever left one of our parties feeling depressed or sad. Quite the opposite—they feel euphoric that they have taken care of this death-and-illness possibility while it’s still an abstract concept. They often express, gratitude for being able to muster the courage to face the one certainty in life. We prepare for hypothetical natural disasters, but not for the one natural ‘disaster’ that is guaranteed to happen. To be clear: I don’t think death is a disaster. It’s simply part of life. Do we fear other endings? Graduations? New Year’s Eve? Birthdays? We celebrate those endings. Why can’t we celebrate death? People put more thought into a grocery list than they do for their own deaths.
Having a plan in place is especially important for those who are ill or actively dying; knowing that they’re not leaving a mess behind for their loved ones gives many people the peace to let go. I tell my clients to be more like Bowie (who planned his death, including his glorious final album, meticulously) and less like Prince (who left his estate in a mess that siblings and obscure family members continue to fight over).
What about a legal will?
Everyone with significant property, and absolutely everyone with kids, should speak with an estate attorney about creating a legal will, which makes important declarations about who should inherit your property, and who would care for your children in the case of an emergency.
The G2G curriculum also includes an Advance Health Care Directive (aka a “living will”), which explains how you would like to be treated if you’re ever in a medical state where you are unable to make decisions for yourself. I include Aging with Dignity’s version, which they call “The Five Wishes,” because it goes into more personal and spiritual detail than most living wills; it’s considered a legal document in 43 states.
Do you sense a cultural shift in the way we deal with death (as exemplified by the death positive movement)?
I’m sensing a very slow cultural shift on how we deal with death. I feel that thanks to Oprah (my spirit animal) and other spiritual activists, people are more aware of mindfulness and living consciously, though we still overlook those practices as they relate to death.
Because death is so taboo and hidden away, society brainwashes us to think it’s a negative thing to dread and fear. I’m not saying that death is a super-fun time or that it isn’t devastating to all who experience loss, but if society talked about it more, if it was viewed more as a life transition such as birth, it would lessen the trauma when it inevitably arrives.
“Death can be a teacher if we are open to its lessons. Post-traumatic growth is possible.”
Many believe that death is creepy, negative and horrible, but if that’s not 100% fact, then couldn’t the opposite also be true? That death might be positive and soul expanding? Why do we choose to believe the worst? Death can be a teacher if we are open to its lessons. Post-traumatic growth is possible.
We could definitely learn from other cultures that face aging and death more fearlessly. Asian cultures, for example, cohesively incorporates the elderly into society, practicing tai chi and qi gong so they can remain more active as they age. Religions like Buddhism, which believe in reincarnation, encourage students to meditate on their own mortality.
How do you see the role of humor in understanding and coping with death?
Laughter is a release—and when you’re grieving, it’s good to have a release. Who said that laughing and being joyful can’t be part of coping with death? It’s almost like we feel if we’re not morose or somber, that we are somehow being disrespectful or not taking it seriously. Death, like life, is complex. You can feel sad, but still be a happy person. You can feel deep cosmic pain, but still have a positive outlook on life. You can feel grateful even when you are lost or suffering.
Amy Pickard is the creator and CEO of Good To Go! Her exclusive paperwork eliminates stress, guilt, and doubt, and provides those we leave behind with the certainty of knowing they are carrying out our wishes.