Life in the Box: Have a Good Death


My friend Sandy had a good death. At age 75, she had a sudden vascular explosion in her brain, and fell to the floor in her bedroom. Within an hour or two, friends found her there, unconscious with a faint pulse, and they rushed her to the hospital by ambulance. The emergency people treated her by intubating her and giving her fluids, but after just a few tests, the doctors told her friends that Sandy was dying.

Now, we can debate about whether or not it was her time to go–at any age that question is unanswerable. But most of us, given a choice, would rather die quickly and not linger in a nursing home one minute longer than necessary. Since she had lived a good, active life right up until that moment, we could say she lived a good life. And since she lingered less than a day after her brain attack, her brothers and many friends (after expressing their shock at losing her) commented on how “that was a good, quick way to die.”

Here’s what Sandy did before dying that was good: she chose a nearby friend as Medical Power of Attorney and this friend carried out her wishes to take her off the tube and let her die without extreme measures. That’s what Sandy wanted to have happen, and it did happen because she had the legal paperwork available in a small shoulder “emergency bag.” Her friends knew to grab the bag as they went out the door to the hospital.

There in the bag, Sandy had provided phone numbers for her medical power of attorney, her brothers, and her emergency back-up friends. She also had her legal papers in there, and that’s all the hospital needed.


Her preparations were made, and her wishes were carried out. Have you done this for yourself? For a partner or friend? It’s not hard. But many people put it off and make things a lot harder than they have to be.

Often, we look at all the “death stuff” and get overwhelmed with a long to-do list: who do I give my stuff to? Where do I want my funeral or life service held? How do I manage my money so my estate isn’t over-taxed or so it doesn’t have to go through probate? What’s my favorite photo of myself, and shouldn’t I start writing my obituary?

Stop. All that stuff is fine, but it’s not as important as what happens in those critical moments just before you die.

If you keep it simple, you can make a wishes list in just a few minutes, take a few more minutes to call someone you trust to get their permission to use them in case of medical emergency. Then follow-up with two legal documents: a Living Will and a Power of Medical Attorney. I went to an attorney for this, but you can download forms online and fill them out.

Prepare your emergency call sheet, a copy of your living will and power of attorney, and make sure several people know where this info is. For good measure, make a miniature version and keep it in your wallet with your insurance cards.

gellinger-imagelayre-smA physical print-out is good; not everyone knows how to get into your cell phone for further info. It’s a gift to yourself and to your closest friends.

I’m providing a link to an okay form that you can fill out with just the basics, or add a few notes. It’s free as a PDF download on “tidy forms.”  To fill it out only takes a few minutes, then print a few copies for you and your helpers, and you can forget about it until someone moves or your policies change.

If you want t0 copy and paste, here are my basic 3, plus ideas for “extra credit.” I just updated my list and my wife’s, and I feel better already!

1. I have health insurance: Provider, ID#
I have a living will and wish for no extreme measures. (Or, I prefer to be given every chance at life—try everything!!)
My Power of Attorney for Medical decisions: name, phone
Alternative Power of Attorney for Medical: name, phone)

Xtra Credit:
Doctor: Name, Phone
Blood Type:
Major Allergies:
Major Diseases or Illnesses:
More Names and Phone Numbers:

Relatives to notify: name, phone, name, phone
Neighbors to notify: name, phone (especially note if they have a house key, can take care of your pets or children)
Close friends to notify: name, phone, name, phone


nancy heather brown author
Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and the world of ideas both inside and outside the box. 

Emergency contact form PDF

Being Mortal – a book about humane death

Frontline documentary based on Being Mortal

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