Last moments worth having

HELEN PITT
Last updated 15:19 17/06/2013
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LAST STEPS: Spending time with loved ones is the best way to show how much they mean to you.

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Here's some startling news: you and everyone you love will die. Perhaps not imminently, but likely within the next century.

No matter how much you may fool yourself that we live in an era where we can cheat death, it ain't going to happen. We're dying every day, and no amount of denial will stop that.

In the past decade, five of the people closest to me have died. After my husband's death, I became a hospice volunteer in the town where we lived. So I've had a front-row seat at a few people's passings.

One thing I've learnt is that no matter how long you think you have to get used to the idea, we always seem unprepared for death. So here are some practical tips about how to 'be prepared' for the only sure thing in life.

1. Make sure your affairs are in order

I don't just mean make a will. But make sure you've had a conversation about or written down what you want at the pointy end of your life. Burial or cremation? Where? Is it prepaid? (Today's rates will seem a bargain in a few decades.) Did you tick the organ donation box? What about your digital ''end-of-life''? Have you left a list of your passwords to email and bank accounts in a safe place with your will?

2. Live the life you want

Healthy living is about preparing for death; but it's easy to lose sight of the fact that you should live each day as if it were your last. So, quit that job you hate, leave that toxic marriage while you can. Don't wait until your deathbed.

3. Go to funerals

As my mum always used to say about funerals, the bereaved won't remember what you say but they'll remember that you came. All you need to do is show up and say you're sorry for their loss. Nothing prepares you more for your own death than seeing how other people's lives are summed up in a one-hour service.

4. Tell people what they mean to you

You can never be told ''I love you'' too many times, nor can you say it too many times. But often actions speak louder that words. Show up when people are dying and tell them how important they have been in your life. Express yourself. Whatever you feel.

5. Tell your story

In the hospice world this is called ''the end-of-life review''. Of course not everyone dies of a long protracted illness - but the principle holds true however you die. Either write your life story (the highlights and the juicy secrets) or sit with your family and flick through photo albums. Write on the back of photos who is in them and the date. Because while a picture may be worth a thousand words when you are alive, it will mean nothing when you are dead (photo albums are often the first thing to go to the charity box when it comes time to clear out a dead person's possessions.)

6. Lighten up and laugh

Gallows humour wasn't invented by mistake. When it comes time to ''put down your knife and fork'' (as my dad's generation used to call it) or ''drop off the perch'' (as Monty Python calls it), don't forget to keep your sense of humour. Watch funny films, have a Life of Brian singalong to help you look on the bright side.

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7. Be kind and expect a mess

Death and grief are fraught with difficulty, so don't expect it to be otherwise. No matter how much you intellectualise it, death is an emotional experience where you'll be better off listening to your heart than your head. Things will be messy. There will be no ''closure''. But kindness will be remembered. Always.

8. Say thank you and I'm sorry

Scott Eberle, the medical director of the hospice where I volunteered, had attended hundreds of deaths. He said the one common thread of the good deaths he'd witnessed was that these words were spoken in some shape or form: ''Please forgive me, I'm sorry. I forgive you. Thank you for all that you have given me. I love you, even when you are gone I will hold you in my heart.''

9. Choose life

By that I don't mean the Wham! version, though if that makes you smile - why not? But bask in the miracle of life - whatever your faith. Because the closest thing I've come to death is birth. Where we go to is as mysterious as whence we came.

10. Let go

Of your ego. Your anger. Your need for control. That investment property you thought would change your life. That crocodile handbag your daughter always coveted. Give them to the people you love because - shock horror - you can't take them with you. Above all, let go of the misguided notion that the world won't go on without you. It will. You're not the first to do this dying caper. You won't be the last.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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