When Margie Jenkins's aging father could no longer live independently in his home, he was despondent about leaving behind a lifetime of memories and going to an institution that could accommodate few of his possessions. Jenkins, a Houston psychotherapist, recognized that her dad was engaged in a very difficult but natural grieving process. Her therapy was to put a tape recorder on the kitchen table and let her dad say goodbye to his home.
"We just walked through the house, and he talked about all the things in the house, what they meant to him, and who in the family he wanted to have them," she recalls. "Later on, after he had moved out, he said to me, 'That was a real gift to me. Thank you.'"
That memory stayed with Jenkins, along with decades of counseling and personal experience. Now 88, she has spent the past decade on a personal crusade to bring dying and plans for dying into the conversations that people have with their spouses and family members.
"One group of people that I saw are people who were dying, from the ages of nine to 90," says Jenkins, who continues to practice. "They didn't know anything about how to prepare for life's ending. I decided that I needed to help these people. I started giving seminars with my husband [the Jenkins's have been married for 65 years]. People kept telling us that no one would attend these seminars, that no one wanted to talk about this. But the seminars were very well attended."
Her book, You Only Die Once, emerged from these speaking engagements, as did a later companion volume, My Personal Planner. "People said we needed a video, so we did one of those, too," she says. It's called "Don't Slam the Door on Your Way Out."
"We plan for weddings, we plan for the birth of a baby, we plan for vacations, we plan for everything," Jenkins says. "We think you should plan for the end of your life, too. There are just things that we think that you should think about doing, and many of them you can do now. We think people should put them into a file, give it a name, and tell their family what they're doing."
"Communication is so important," she explains. "And you need to talk about this, and not whisper about it. It isn't going to go away, and we're all going to die someday."
Her experiences with her father, for example, show up under "Stages of Grief" in her own recommended list of items that should be included in an end-of-life planning folder. Jenkins took that experience a step further with her four children, inviting them to walk through her home in separate visits and make a list of the family possessions they wanted. "They asked us all sorts of questions about where things came from," she says, "and then they made a list of the 10 best things that they wanted. We can give those things now if we don't need them" or wait until later.
When she's out speaking, Jenkins presents a list of more than 40 items that she recommends people include in their planning folders. Most of the entries are factual—copies of key documents, instructions about who to contact and steps to take, wishes about what to do with various possessions, and the like. Here's that list:
Advanced directives; attorney; bank accounts; benefits; birth certificate; bonds/securities; brokerage accounts; burial information; CPA; cars/vehicles; contracts; divorce papers; financial statements; funeral/cemetery information; hospice; insurance policies; inventory of belongings; loans; long term care information; marriage license; medical crisis information; memorial/funeral service; military papers; mortgages; obituary; passwords (computers, etc.); pensions; people to notify; real estate titles and deeds; safe deposit box(s); Social Security/Medicare information; tax returns (past four years); when death occurs, what to do, and your will.
There are other entries that are not so obvious.
Bodacious living ideas. Talk about how you want to live the rest of your life. "We try to have fun with this subject," Jenkins says. "I think we should plan for life's ending like we plan for life's beginning, and then live bodaciously for as long as you can."
Cherished possessions. What are they and what do you want done with them?
Going-away-party reception. "A lot of people say to me, 'What I think I want is a big party when I die.' So I suggest that they should pay for it and set aside the money before they die. Other people have talked about making a video before they die. This should be a celebration of life. In fact, I wish we could have that party for ourselves before we die!"
Instant action folder. Jenkins recommends creating an emergency folder that contains all the information someone would need to quickly react to your death or to a serious health event.
My support circle. Who's in it, what's their contact information, and what are your wishes for communicating with them if you are seriously ill and after you die?
Stages of grief. "I include six stages of grief in my book," she says. "It's important that we know that the stages of grief are a normal process, or as normal as anything can be. We have to reach for a new normalcy here because nothing is normal after a death."
"10 Best Things" list. The things that Jenkins children said they wanted. It could include other family members and friends as well.
Things I want to do before I die. Make a "bucket" list of things you want to do.
Jenkins thinks people are becoming more willing to openly discuss death, but that attitudinal change is coming "slowly, very slowly."
"We're getting more and more invitations to speak around the country," she explains, adding that she was about to fly to New York for some seminars. "After we talk in New York, we are getting on a cruise ship and going to Nova Scotia and Quebec and Montreal. Now, that's bodacious, isn't it?"