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The question of “putting one’s affairs in order” is more complicated than merely sitting down and having a conversation.  As we can see from the thoughts below, one has multiple issues to consider when faced with the inevitability of life’s end. I will have to say on the subject in upcoming posts on a book I recently read, Because You’ve Never Died Before.   

Putting our Affairs in Order

Posted on 12/04/2011, 9:29 am, by Larry Hirst

Charles Dickens is possibly best known for the story “The Christmas Carol” that has become a Christmas standard in our culture. You know the story. Ebenezer Scrooge is Bob Cratchit’s miserly boss. On Christmas Eve he retires to his bed to have a series of dreams that scare him sufficiently that when he awakes, he sets out to put his affairs in order; not because he was dying, but because he realized that he didn’t want come to death having lived the way he had been living. Of course it is a wonderful ending, Miserly old Scrooge becomes a happy, generous, benefactor and all are warned that it is best to live so that one’s affairs are always in order.

Of course this story found its basis in the teachings of the Christian Faith, the Religious Tradition that pervades this time of year. Jesus Christ taught that it is best to live every day, trusting in God, loving him supremely and our neighbor as ourselves for this is how one keeps one’s affairs in order so that no matter when death may visit us, we are always ready. In my work, I often come face to face with the fact that death often visits unexpectedly.

The same is true in all spiritual traditions.  Live life in a way as to never be caught off-guard when death arrives.  However, we know that this is usually not how most people live.  We don’t live in the moment and thus dying becomes an inevitable point of life review. 

Not long ago I encountered a family who had received such unexpected news. Dad had been feeling a bit punk, but nothing serious, or so we thought. After feeling poorly for a couple of weeks Dad finally agreed to go see a doctor. After the initial examination the doctor was concerned, he sent Dad to the hospital for blood tests, an ultrasound and a cat scan. The long and the short of it:  Dad had cancer. Not just cancer but he had CANCER. It was everywhere, and the next time Dad visited the doctor, she had a very frank conversation in which she said, “I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but the cancer is so advanced and has affected so many organs, there is nothing we can offer you but comfort care, palliative care. You better put your affairs in order, in all likelihood; you will not live through the winter.”

My work leads me into the lives of people who have received such news. A doctor is seen for what is believed to be a minor health issue and by the time all is said and done, the family is faced with the dying of a beloved member. What a shock.

So, when a doctor says, you better get your affairs in order, what does the doctor mean? Well, there are many things in a person’s life that may need to be address to prepare for death. There are material affairs, relational affairs and spiritual affairs. Let’s take a moment to examine each of these three categories.

Our material affairs cover the whole waterfront of our life in a material world. Material affairs include financial affairs, making or updating a will, naming a power of attorney and a health care proxy. Material affairs includes telling your loved ones where the key to your safety deposit box is, where your life insurance policies are kept and who your agent is and seeking to make the transfer of your worldly goods to another as smooth as possible. My mother-in-law set out to do this years before her death. Once when we arrived for a visit Mom said to my wife. “I’ve put the name of the person I want to have each object on a piece of tape on the back or under each object.” And sure enough, everything in the house had a piece of masking take on it with a name. Frankly, it was kind of creepy. But she was putting her earthly affairs in order.

Our relational affairs have to do with the people we have in our lives. We all have people in our lives:  family, friends, and people we worked with, neighbors, acquaintances, people we worshipped with; people we likes, people we don’t like – you get the picture. Most of us, as we move our way through the sea of people that fill our lives, make a few waves. Some of the waves we make bring joy to others, but some of the waves we make bring devastation. These relational affairs often require that we think about how to appreciate those relationships that have been a blessing to us and how to repair relationships that have taken a beating over the years. Dr. Ira Byock, a Palliative Care Doctor in Missoula, Montana has written a book, The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living. In the book he suggests that there are four things we might consider doing to attend to our relational affairs. The four things can be summarized with four sentences: “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.” Sounds so simple, but if we look back at those four statements we may quickly see that we have some relational affairs to put in order. People in our lives that need to hear these words from us?  Although these words are easily written, saying them to the right people at the right time is nothing less than the art of living, an art that many of us are not all that adept at.

Our spiritual affairs have to do with our beliefs, our relationship with God, our capacity to understand who we are, why we are here, what our propose for being is and how we can best fulfill that purpose. It also entails doing the work needed to feel comfortable with death itself and preparing for what comes after death. Of course, spirituality is a very personal matter, and we are all invested with the responsibility to chose what we will believe and with that responsibility we all must accept the fact that each choice comes with its own consequences. Many do not give much thought to their spiritual affairs during the majority of their lives, allowing the material and relational affairs to take priority. However, when a Doctor says, “You might want to consider putting your affairs in order,” many will want to give some serious though to their spiritual affairs.

Some of the questions that might be explores: “What do I really believe about spiritual matters?” “Am I sure about these things, can I believe them with all my heart?” “How do I know if what I believe is true?” “Do I believe there is life after death?” “How is it that one prepares for life after death?” “On what authority am I basing my beliefs?” “Is it an authority that can stand up to scrutiny?”

Many find that it is difficult to deal with these affairs and the truth of the matter is – it is. Putting our affairs in order requires some heavy lifting for dealing with one’s material, relational and spiritual matters is hard work. That’s why I would recommend that we deal with getting our affairs in order as soon as possible – before a doctor announces that we only have a few months to live; before some terminal illness may rob us of the ability to concentrate or the energy to engage this important work; or before we are in an accident that may rob us of the opportunity to address these matters entirely. Possibly, like Ebenezer Scrooge, quite a few of us need a wake up call that will alter our perspective so that we begin living every day in such a way that our affairs are always in order?

I am not sure we are truly able to get our “affairs” in order before facing inevitability.  I am not saying one shouldn’t consider and try to do so.  Rather, most of us are so busy living and planning we don’t find the time to consider stopping and thinking about the brevity of life.  Most times, I find people contemplating death when faced with another’s loss.  Death reminds people that life is short and ends eventually.  Truth is, even those in the hospice world do not spend much time thinking about one’s own death and what is left behind.