What’s your ideal death?
For many people, a good death means having the chance to say goodbye to loved ones, making sure to let them know what they’ve meant to you. But, of course, no one can plan when or how they’re going to die, so this communication doesn’t always happen.
“There are some unexpected deaths where someone has a traffic accident, and then the family spends years looking for some sign, some message from the dead person,” said Dr. VJ Periyakoil, director of the Stanford Palliative Care Education and Training Program.
To make sure that your friends and loved ones know how much they meant to you when the time comes, Periyakoil believes she has developed a solution: On September 7, she released the Friends and Family letter ― a template of seven questions meant to help prompt the kind of poignant goodbye that makes death feel a little bit easier.
Periyakoil has spent years working with critically ill and dying patients, and often finds herself acting as a go-between for spouses, or for parents and children, to communicate their most heartfelt hopes, desires and regrets. While she’s happy to do it, Periyakoil realized that not all patients could rely on their doctors to carry out similar tasks.
That’s why she developed and tested the Friends and Family letter, to encourage shy or reticent patients to look back on their lives and compose heartfelt messages to the people they care about the most.
The seven prompts are:
- Acknowledge the important people in your life.
- Remember treasured moments from your life.
- Apologize to those you love if you hurt them.
- Forgive those who love you if they have hurt you.
- Express your gratitude for all the love and care you have received.
- Tell your friends and family how much you love them.
- Take a moment to say “goodbye.”
She produced the letter in eight different languages to help people express their feelings in the language most comfortable for them. Periyakoil also tailors them for people currently in good health and people who have a chronic illness, which brings up another important point ― you don’t have to be ill or near death to compose one.
Writing this letter is a good idea for all, not just the sick or dying
Writing the letter while young and in good health may actually spur positive changes in a person’s life. Matthew Schoen, a 26-year-old Stanford medical student who worked with Periyakoil on the letter, decided to compose his answers and filmed it for the project’s website.
When Schoen showed the video to his family, who live across the country in Westborough, Massachusetts, he didn’t expect how it would permanently change the way his family members would communicate with each other ― about death, but also about anything at all.
“I don’t tell my brothers how much I care that often; that just isn’t our dynamic,” he said. “That next day I got texts from both of them just to reach out and say ‘Hi.’ I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
He noted that “open, frank conversations” lead to more of the same, and that “many barriers have been broken” as the result of his letter to his family.
I also cannot stress enough how these conversations can lead to other important conversations. We talk about everything more openly now. From our health, to aspirations, to relationships, we are more honest and willing to talk. This is a blessing I cannot overstate.
Schoen also shared how composing the letter made him feel more safe and secure. If anything were to happen to him, Schoen said, it felt good knowing his family has this letter to remember how much he loved them.
Some sections of the letter aren’t for everyone
Periyakoil wrote one herself, because, as she put it, “If you brew beer at home, you have to be the first one to sip it.” She discovered that while the goal of the prompts is to simplify a person’s final message to their loved ones, the process of writing the letter is extremely difficult. Like many others who attempt it, she went through several versions before settling on the one that best reflects her thoughts and feelings. But while it’s not simple, it is important, and Periyakoil is grateful that she is taking it on in her own life.
“What I’ve learned is that this is not easy,” said Periyakoil. “I’ve been writing so many different versions of the letter.”
And of course, the letter template doesn’t work for everyone. Periyakoil encountered resistance from some communities that felt speaking about their deaths would inadvertently lead to it, or that saying goodbye would be, in effect, “signing their own death sentence.”
After she wrote a column about the letter template in the New York Times, some commenters shared that they didn’t feel like it was their place to forgive others ― only God could do that. Others brought up the fact that, for some people, certain offenses were unforgivable. They bristled at the notion of absolving people who had deeply, irreparably harmed them.
For people who don’t feel comfortable responding to all of the prompts, Periyakoil has one piece of advice.
“No one is enforcing all the seven tasks,” she said. “You can just do the ‘I love yous.’ That’s all you need to do.”
“I believe this letter should be completed by everyone; sick or healthy, young or old, because the conversations it sparks are priceless,” Schoen concluded.