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Alert family to choice of ‘outsider’ now

Q. I would like to choose my most clear-headed friend to make health care decisions for me if I were no longer able to do so. I know he will stick to my written-down wishes. But I worry this will hurt family members who might wonder why I chose an “outsider” for this task. Any guidance here?

A. Best to tell your family now about your choice, so they’re not surprised should a medical emergency arise for you.

Chaplain Zac Willette of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago offers this advice on how to break the news: “Tell your family you love them and want them there, but remind them there’s a reason we don’t go to immediate family members to be our doctors and nurses – it’s beneficial to have an ‘outsider’ approach the situation objectively. The same logic applies to who can serve as your ‘voice’ for health care decisions when you can’t be your own.”

Point out to your family that there are still important ways they can care for you, if the need ever arises.

They can “contact friends and family, bring people in to see you, sing your favorite songs, tell your favorite stories, and simply love you. By making this clear-headed friend your ‘agent’ you’re freeing your family to do that,” Willette pointed out.

Don’t forget to sit down with your clear-headed friend and outline your wishes in great detail. If you want to be kept on life-support only if you can recover to again read stories to your grandchildren, enjoy ice cream and go swimming, be that specific.

The person you choose to be your agent doesn’t need to be your favorite person. Instead, as Willette said: “It’s the person you know is strong enough in the middle of a complex and emotional situation to honor your wishes and serve as your voice. It’s not a popularity contest, it’s a grace-under-pressure contest. And when we choose agents that are clear-headed and will honor what we’ve told them our wishes are, everybody wins.”

Q: My twin brother died from AIDS several years ago. Next summer is our class reunion. I get tired of people’s responses when I tell them he died of AIDS: “So, was he gay?” They act like he deserved his death. When classmates ask about him, how should I answer?

A: When you tell classmates your brother died, they will ask the cause and they may ask about his sexual orientation. Let your own comfort level guide your response and answer with your heart.

Liz Blair Anderson of Edina, Minn., whose brother, Mark, died of AIDS, told EndNotes, “I was surprised at how much support I actually had once I let people in. Of course, I choose my friends carefully.”

Your reunion could be a wonderful opportunity to honor your brother by reminiscing over high school adventures and sharing his dreams and hopes after graduation. Your grief may actually be helped when you share special memories with high school friends.

“I am very eager to tell people about him. I truly don’t really care what they think. He was truly a gift and I am so lucky to be able to say he was my brother. His kindness and empathy for others was endearing. I only wish I could be more like him now,” Anderson said of her brother.

Your classmates may offer more acceptance than you expect. The stigma, once so strong in our country toward sexual orientation, has lessened dramatically as evidenced by strong political support for marriage equality.

“I would give anything right now to have him back, healthy and of course gay, because that was one of the most special things about him, and he wouldn’t be Mark if he wasn’t,” Anderson said.

Go to the reunion and enjoy reconnecting with classmates. And no matter what questions are asked, remember your brother’s death does not define him, his life does.

Catherine Johnston, a health care professional from Olympia, and Rebecca Nappi, a Spokesman-Review features writer, welcome your questions about what to do in times of illness, dying, death and grief. Contact them through their EndNotes blog at blogs/endnotes.

Tags: EndNotes