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Wisconsin Conference Planned Giving and Trust Services Director, Bill Ochs, and his family in happier times four years ago. He is pictured in the back row, second from right, with his sister Tracy, center top row, wearing the light blue dress. When Tracy died, "because she did not have a living will (also known as an advance health directive) to clarify her wishes, our exceptionally large and sometimes opinionated family had to figure it out," said Bill. "Some wanted to keep her on life support for as long as it took for her to 'get back to health,' others wanted to 'let her go,' as there did not appear to be any hope of recovery. Then there was the discussion about organ donation. The entire family was soon mentally and emotionally exhausted." | Courtesy Bill Ochs

October 15, 2020

Dying without a will: harsh realities, wrenching decisions

This past March, my younger sister Tracy died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 56. I can’t explain just how unprepared our family was for this tragedy. I usually don’t share personal things of this nature in a public forum; however, I thought the sharing of what we were confronted with would be helpful to others.

When the doctor came into the waiting room and shared the extent of my sister’s situation, to say that we were stunned would be an understatement. Although the doctor did not come out and clearly say that there was no hope for recovery, most of us read between the lines and knew that barring divine intervention, and believe me, we prayed for God to intervene, my sister had no hope of recovery.

Our family’s experience was complicated by the need to quickly find answers to some extremely tough questions. Should we leave Tracy on extraordinary life support for an indefinite period? For how long and under what conditions would we remove her? Who would make the decision to leave her on life support or remove her? What would Tracy want us to do?  My sister never shared what her wishes would be should something like this happen. Because of this, we did not know what she wanted. She has four adult daughters, a mother, seven siblings, over fifty nieces & nephews and numerous opinions on what should be done. It’s true that often a surviving spouse makes this kind of a decision, but she wasn’t married, even though she was in a long-term relationship, which complicated things even further.

Because Tracy did not have a living will (also known as an advance health directive) to clarify her wishes, our exceptionally large and sometimes opinionated family had to figure it out. Some wanted to keep her on life support for as long as it took for her to “get back to health,” others wanted to “let her go,” as there did not appear to be any hope of recovery. Then there was the discussion about organ donation. The entire family was soon mentally and emotionally exhausted.

With much prayer and many tears, including some emotional outbursts, caused in part by pain and fear, and loss, we figured it out the best we could. We got through it, but I remember thinking, if only Tracy had made her wishes known to us and put her desires in a living will, we may have been spared some of the pain caused by having to make agonizing decisions during an already difficult time. Some of my family members have stated their plans to include advanced healthcare directives in their estate planning. I’m grateful for that. I hope our experience makes you think about this important topic, and if you do not already have a living will, or other end-of-life directives, I encourage you to take care of it soon.

If you have questions about living wills, contact your conference's Trust Services department for more information.

Bill Ochs, Wisconsin Conference Planned Giving and Trust Services Director

Originally published by Wisconsin Conference