Having a Death Scare Made Me Reassess My Life

Having a Death Scare Made Me Reassess My Life

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This may sound dramatic, but I had a death scare recently that changed my life. I had a week between a doctor appointment and a followup appointment to wonder and worry about whether I had cancer. I imagined learning I had cancer, I imagined telling my kids, I imagined asking people to help me to pay my bills while I went through chemotherapy, I imagined dying. I cried myself to sleep nearly every night that week. 

But also during that week, I said yes more. I stopped to smell the flowers more. I hugged my kids tighter. I appreciated the heat and the sound of my neighbors living their lives loudly. I thought about the love that I possess, and how I am not ready to leave it. It's easy to forget to feel all of this stuff on a daily basis. We always know logically what we have and what we stand to lose. But we often fail to feel it, emotionally, on a daily basis.

The day before I had my follow-up appointment, I had a damn-near perfect day and didn’t even spend any money or do anything terribly epic. My daughter Lu and I went on a good, challenging hike on the north end of Forest Park with a friend. I breathed, I sweat, I bathed in trees. Then in the evening, Lu and I walked to see Ferdinand at Essex Park with friends. There was music, dancing, popcorn, and when the sun went down, we watched the movie. I was so cold lying on a blanket watching the movie. Lu took my hand and held it, trying to warm it up for me.  I couldn’t help but wonder to myself if my hands were so cold because I have cancer and if Lu has a near-future in caregiving for a sick mother. 

I woke up the next day knowing that it was either going to be one of the worst days of my life, or it could be the greatest of days, the first day of the rest of my life, with a new outlook about being scared into living my life to the fullest.

It turned out to be a great day. I'm apparently not dying yet.

But I thought about how death is coming for each of us, and many of us don't ever get a warning. It just happens sometimes. Even though I don't have cancer, I could get hit by a car tomorrow. So making sure that we're living our lives to the fullest is super important. And so is planning for our deaths so that we don't leave a mess behind for the people we love.

I don't want to lose my momentum for living my life the best that I can, so I've tried to create an action list that I intend to live by. I recommend pretending for a moment that you know you will die in the next year. Not the most fun  game ever, but you might find that it helps you to find a new way to live. 

1.  First things first: Lay the foundation.

You knew I was going to say this, but everyone needs an estate plan, especially if you have children and especially if you own any type of property. And if you already have an estate plan, you need to make sure you're getting it reviewed every 3-5 years. Your plan needs to make sure that your kids will be cared for by the right people; that your assets will be used to carry them into adulthood; that assets won't be tied up in a lengthy court process when they are needed to care for your family; that any fees and taxes have been anticipated and planned for; that it's more than a set of documents that your family doesn't understand; that there is personal guidance and trusted counsel to be there for your family when you can't be.

Well, this is embarrassing. I'm an estate planning lawyer, and yet, my estate plan is not up to date. As they say, the cobbler's kids have no shoes. The first thing I need to do is review my plan and determine what changes need to be made. When I do the complimentary plan review with my clients every three years, I go over their nominations and their asset spreadsheets, as well as a checklist of life changes that may affect their plan. From there, we determine if any documents need to be updated, if any new assets need to be retitled to reflect the existence of their revocable trust, or if they need to update their plan entirely, like if they need to upgrade from a will plan to a revocable trust plan.  

Ask yourself what plans need to be made to care for your family if something happens to you.

2.  Second things second: What do you want less of in your life?

I noticed during the week that I was waiting to find out my health fate that I was less interested in a lot of the things that consume me on a sometimes daily basis. I have a habit of reading the news throughout the day in small tidbits that overwhelm me to the point that I engage in activities that take off the edge and pacify me. I'm talking about wine, obviously. Too much social media and news makes me need wine. But that week, I didn't want anything to do with things that pacified me, the vices I use to disengage with the stresses of daily life and the news. I didn't want to engage in pointless bickering that doesn't solve anything. I didn't want to mindlessly scroll through Facebook. I didn't want to crack open a bottle on wine as soon as the day was over. I just didn't feel that I wanted to numb myself in any way. I didn't want to react thoughtlessly to every interaction I had and every horrifying drip of news that came out. I also had a need to declutter and tidy up my home more than I usually do. I wanted things around me to look organized, pretty, and simple.

I also discovered that I really don't want to continue with some of the types of work that I have been engaged in. I don't want to do court work anymore. The energy of court work is not right for me the way that the energy of planning work is. Court work involves unhappy people who are not excited about the work we do together. It involves clients who have essentially been forced to hire me when they do not want be there.  

Essentially, I think that what I want is less clutter. Less mind clutter. Less house clutter. Less work clutter. Less life clutter. Ask yourself what you want less of in your life.

3. Third things third: What do you want more of in your life?

It's not that the things I stress out about don't matter. It's not that the news doesn't matter. It all matters. It's just that now I want to find ways to react more thoughtfully and meaningfully. I want to not bombard myself and inundate myself with it. I want to read things and react to things with intention. I also wanted to be able to disengage from work and the news in ways that were nourishing for me, like going hiking or hanging out with my kids and being really present for them. I actually had such a wonderful, fulfilling week that week. I read a book, I went hiking, I snuggled and held hands with my daughter as we watched a movie in our neighborhood under the stars. I wrote a lot in my journal. I gave my dog lots of attention and lots of treats. I felt more connected with life. I thought a lot about more long-term projects that I want to see to fruition.

I have read that it's a lot easier to add something new to your life than it is to take something away. Maybe the reason that I didn't feel the need to engage in the pacifying activities I described above is because I was adding things to my life that filled my cup: exercise, nature, human connection. Ask yourself what you want more of in your life.

4. Fourth things fourth: Set goals and make plans.

This is the point where it gets hard for me. It's extremely difficult for me to change habits long-term. I think that what it takes is not just setting goals and making plans, but also daily assessment of how you're doing living up to your goals. For example, if my goal is "travel more," then I can make a plan to save $X by March 1st, so that I can then buy tickets and make plans for the first trip I'll take under this new life goal. But what I do today, tomorrow, and the next day really determines whether I am going to reach the goal of $X. The choices I make today can make a huge difference in whether I can reach my ultimate goal. So it's important for me to have daily, weekly, and monthly check-ins to see how I am doing.

I can't pretend that I have this all figured out, but one of the things that's working for me right now is an Excel spreadsheet that I keep open on my laptop and use as a log each day. I have categories that are important to me, given my bad habits and goals I want to achieve. So I log each day if I've used social media and how much, if I've had wine and how much, and then what I've done to get outside, done for self-care, done to connect with people I care about. The spreadsheet really works for me because it's not a list of things I need to do that I can be disappointed in myself later for not completing. It's not a list of big goals with no path to get there. It's simply a log. It's data. It gives me information about my habits. It helps me make connections between the things I spend time on and what suffers as a result. But it has a side effect of keeping me constantly motivated. Seeing "NONE" under exercise for a whole week is motivating. I'd like to move that "NONE" to the social media use category eventually. (OK, maybe not "NONE," but I want more on the exercise column than the social media column.)

I hope that this was helpful for you in one way or another. If you need help on the estate planning side, you know what to do!

You can purchase the Guardian Plan kit here.

Or, you can schedule an Estate Planning session here.

To your family's health + happiness,

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Candice N. Aiston

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