The title of this blog is meant to serve as a heads-up about one of the most important aspects of our communications with family and friends, and the one that we rarely, if ever, think about.
Let’s start by getting realistic: it’s not a matter of if something’s going to happen to you, but rather, when. I’m guessing many people reading that statement felt a little twinge of foreboding in the pit of their stomachs—not an uncommon reaction given we live in a society where we’re bombarded by fear-based messages. For evidence of that, simply watch all the pessimistic news programs interspersed with incessant commercials for prescription drugs with long lists of deleterious side effects, not to mention the negative, political ads. However, according to Roget’s Super Thesaurus, the word happen is completely neutral as validated by its list of synonyms: “occur, take place, befall, transpire, materialize, come about, come to pass, develop, ensue, spring, pass, result, arise.”
There are a lot of happenings on those dashes in-between our birth and death dates. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a happening as: “1. Something that takes place; an occurrence. 2. An improvised, often spontaneous spectacle or performance, especially one involving audience participation.” Roget adds: “event, occurrence, incident, experience, occasion, episode, incidence, affair, circumstance.” Yes, the ebb-and-flow of life can bring illnesses, accidents, disasters, and technological glitches, but there are lots of high points like birthdays; graduations; awards; changes of jobs, residences, names and e-mail addresses; weddings and anniversaries; births of children and grandchildren; first steps and words; and celebrations of all manner of other milestones.
That brings me to the pertinent question: How do we know when something happens to a relative or friend who lives at a distance, maybe even someone we’ve never met in person but have a relationship with? Perhaps that’s something people think more about as they get older and are no longer entertaining the youthful delusion of their current body’s immortality. Or maybe it happens when they’re startled by the untimely passing of someone in their life. Regardless, the question eventually occurs. Now readers may be talking at my blog, answering, “Why, they just tell us!” But…what if they are unable to do so?
This challenge first came to my mind over fifteen years ago. I met a gentleman living in England via an archeological news group. We struck up an e-mail correspondence that quickly blossomed into friendship. Then, he introduced me to his sister who lives in Cape Town, South Africa. We became good friends and began e-mailing on a daily basis, sharing the ups and downs of our lives. All of a sudden after several months, her e-mails stopped. That was completely out-of-character, and I became concerned that something dreadful had happened to her. About a week later, I received a surprise e-mail from her younger brother in Johannesburg advising me that she had called him, asking that he let me know that she was okay, but her computer had crashed. What a welcome relief! And that led me to yet another friendship with this delightful family. It was in the nick of time, too, as not long after, my husband made his transition, and the love and support of my three, long-distance friends helped get me through a very dark time. I’ve never met any of them face-to-face, but we have exchanged a few phone calls and snail mails, along with many photos. Over 15+ years, we’ve e-shared the big details of moves, a wedding, the birth of children and a grandchild, the death of my father and the minutiae of everyday life. I cherish their friendship.
Another friend’s experience provides additional perspective. She had a treasured friend, an older woman who lived alone out in Seattle that she hadn’t seen in years but wrote to on a regular basis, along with sharing an occasional phone call. The lady didn’t have e-mail. My friend was concerned that if anything happened to her, she’d have no way of knowing. Then, her friend passed away suddenly. Fortunately, a close friend of the deceased went through the woman’s address book, found my friend’s name and called her with the news. While my friend was saddened at the loss of her cherished comrade, she was so grateful that she was given the opportunity to know the details and say her spiritual good-byes.
I relate the stories above as examples of relationships that are forged and maintained across time and space. In the years since I made my South African connections, social media has flourished and cell phones became commonplace. I now have hundreds of friends around the world. And therein echoes my question: when something happens to someone that prevents his or her ability to contact me, how will I know? My friend’s story made me stop and think about all the people I hold dear who only know me through letters, e-mail, and maybe, rare phone conversations. They’d have no way of knowing if something happens to prevent me from keeping in contact with them or vice versa.
Now for answers.
We’re all aware of how imperative it is to have a completed Will, Health Care Power of Attorney and Living Will, signed and notarized, so that our wishes will be carried out in the event of an accident, illness or death. Yet, many people resist all those things associated with “getting one’s affairs in order,” even though doing so is one of the most thoughtful gifts we can give our family and friends. We know that no one gets out of this life alive, but busy lives and our avoid-talk-of-death-at-all-costs-culture fuel our procrastination. And even when we do take a deep breath and finish our paperwork, none of those legal documents address the important reality of all our connections. Some of those forms list whom to contact “in case of an emergency,” but that ignores all the other folks in our life who would want to know.
To really have our affairs in order, we should also make a list of those we would want contacted on our behalf if we couldn’t do it. I don’t consider this a morbid activity, but rather, part of that gift we can give our loved ones. Most everyone has an address book next to their landline telephone and/or one on their computer or cell phone. It only takes a few minutes to put a red check mark or asterisk next to the names of those special people you’re connected with. (Printing out the list is important if no one has the passwords to access your files.) Perhaps a little notation next to the entries would also be helpful, as would slips of paper in your wallet and clipped to your legal documents advising, “please refer to my address book (give location) for information on who to contact in the event that I can’t.” Then, tell a family member or trusted friend that you’ve done so. A mere 15 minutes of your attention to these details can make a world of difference and be a major consolation to those who’ve accompanied you along your life’s path.
There are various ways to accomplish the same thing. I don’t own a cell phone, but when I heard the recommendation by police that people should save an ICE (In Case of Emergency) number on theirs, I expanded on that idea. I typed up an ICE list of names, their relationship to me, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of all the important people in my life and sent confidential copies to a couple of family members and a close friend. I use a copy as my address book and keep it updated.
While writing this blog, another thought occurred to me. I know of three friends on Facebook who are deceased, yet their pages live on, haunting cyberspace. In one case, that’s been well over a year. Their friends and family continue to regularly place word-flowers on their walls, perhaps providing solace, and maybe also, because no one has the passwords to disable the accounts. It was bizarre when Facebook reminded me to wish them a happy birthday long after they were gone. That makes me wonder how many of their other members aren’t anymore. Internet researchers predict there will be one billion “unique, active, Facebook users” by August 2012. They can’t possibly know that for sure. I believe their numbers are severely warped, given that deceased members’ friends are keeping those pages active with their postings, and I, along with many others I know, have more than one account under different names.
For those with hundreds or thousands of Facebook friends, it’s physically impossible to communicate with all of them regularly. But imagine for a moment if you could never again reach those you do connect with every day. Did your heart just skip a beat? If so, it would be prudent to keep a list of contact information in case Facebook goes wonky. Our technological world is in a constant state of flux, so never assume that anything enabled by it is forever.
Personally, I would like to lighten the load on the Internet by having all my various contributions go poof when I do. So, my latest way of getting my affairs in order is typing up the website addresses of my credit cards, utilities, Yahoo, Facebook, WordPress and e-mail accounts, along with their respective passwords and accompanying deletion instructions. I’ll try to keep the list current and attached to my Will that’s filed in my safe.
All those answers take some time and attention, but they also bring relief and comfort to me and those I love. How about you? Will you provide those gifts? How will I know when something happens to you? I really want to know.