As I headed down to DC for work the other day, my cab driver pointed out something I’d never seen. “See that limo over there?” he said, pointing to a white stretch Towncar emblazoned with a green logo. “It’s from a cancer treatment center. They bring their patients to and from the train station in a limo. Isn’t that nice?” As he spoke, a tall frail woman struggled out of the car, assisted by the driver and an older female companion. She carried the telltale oxygen tank of a lung cancer patient. As she and her companion moved slowly toward the door of the train station, I was instantly thrown back into my mother’s last weeks. The woman bent over and reached for the doorframe, gasping for breath. As she sucked in air as best she could, I could hear the same raspy rattle my mother would make as she struggled to open every square inch of lung capacity in a desperate effort to catch her breath.

Shortly after my mother reached this point, her doctor told her that there was nothing left that he could do. She was too weak for chemo, he said, and so he sent her home with home-hospice care. Having home-hospice care was probably the best decision we made in the course of my mom’s illness, and my only regret is that we didn’t get that type of support sooner.

In an article in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande that came out right around my mother’s diagnosis, he explains that most people don’t access hospice care until their last weeks of life, when actually hospice is available to patients with six months left to live. But there’s the rub: who wants to admit that they’ve got only six months left to live? Certainly not my mother.

That’s where palliative care can come in. Palliative care, which has been scientifically demonstrated to extend life when engaged with early, is an option for anyone facing serious illness. What most people don’t know is that palliative care is available to patients regardless of where they are in their treatment and whether or not they have a terminal illness. You don’t need to “give up” on treatment to access the support of a palliative care specialist; palliative care is often delivered in conjunction with regular medical treatments, such as chemo or dialysis.

Think of palliative care as a team effort: the oncologist treats the cancer, and the palliative care specialist treats the symptoms and side effects. Doctors are busy people, I explained to my mom. Why not have a team of experts working to help you stay as healthy and as comfortable as possible, for as long as possible?

She never responded to my suggestions, but the more I learned about palliation, the more clearly I understood its value. So much of our experience with a disease happens outside of the fifteen minute doctor’s visit, and when things get complicated—as they invariably do with life-threatening diseases—it is always better to have as many knowledgeable people working together as possible.

While my mom never did pursue palliative care, our whole family saw the benefit of hospice. Our hospice nurse provided the perfect combination of gentle support and stern management of care. She cleared out unnecessary medications, set up pill boxes to help us stay organized, and established a medication schedule so that we all knew what mom needed, and when. She had all of us working together to care for my mom, and she did all this with a sweet Southern accent and a calm demeanor. She provided tremendous support for our family. She helped us understand what the last few weeks would be like. And when my mom finally slipped away, she tended to her gently and beautifully. 

The level of care and support our hospice nurse provided made me acutely understand what good-quality palliative care could have given my mother and our whole family.  And maybe we could have gotten just a little more time with her if we’d started out with palliative support.

When a person is buried in a cemetery, the family will often visit the gravesite to pay tribute to the person who died. In some ways, this final resting place becomes a new home for their loved one, and many people decorate headstones and gravesites to make the place feel as special as possible. In addition, decorating the grave can help make being at the cemetery a bit less painful, and can be a way to cope with grief. If you want to do something special at the gravesite of someone you love, here are a few ideas for how to decorate a headstone.

Many cemeteries have very strict rules about how headstones and gravesites can be decorated, so it’s a good idea to check with the cemetery about their rules before you decorate the grave.

Small stones

Placing small stones on a headstone is traditional for those of the Jewish faith, and dates back to the times when people were buried in the desert. This tradition has spread beyond Judaism, though, and it’s now common to see small stones on the graves of people of all faiths.

Flags

On holidays (such as Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day) you’ll often see small American flags placed by the headstones of veterans. But flags can be placed on anyone’s grave, and at any time of the year.

Seasonal decorations

Why not place a pumpkin next to the grave around Halloween? During the Christmas season you could put a wreath, poinsettia plant, or even ornaments near the headstone. Or on Valentine’s Day you could leave a bunch of roses and a card (though you might not want to leave any chocolates).

Solar lights

Many companies have created solar lights that can be attached to the headstone to illuminate the grave at night. These lights come in a variety of shapes, from a candle to a cross to spotlights that light up the entire grave. (Industrial designer Lauren Von Dehsen created a prototype "Grave Lights," pictured above.) Grave and Garden, Memorials.com, and Thompson Monuments all offer solar grave lights.

Flowers

While flowers are a common decoration, you shouldn’t feel confined to a bunch of traditional carnations. Feel free to bring an arrangement of your (or the deceased’s) favorite flowers, colors, or scents. Many flat grave markers have vases built in, where you can place the flowers, of you can put them on top of the headstone or on top of the grave. Some cemeteries even allow you to place a small plant in the area.

Blankets

If the cemetery is in a part of the country that gets cold in the winter, some people find comfort in placing a “blanket” on top of the grave to protect from the snow. This blanket could be an actual blanket, or can be made from Styrofoam covered in Evergreen branches. If you’re interested in “blanketing” the grave, be sure to get the measurements of the space so that your blanket will be the right size.

Toys and stuffed animals

Visiting the grave of a child can be particularly painful. Placing a toy or a stuffed animal at the headstone can be a real comfort. 

“How would you define a ‘successful’ life? Have you achieved it? Does ‘success’ even matter?”

This was a question posed on the question-and-answer website Quora. And I think it's a great question. If we accept that each day might be our last, how does that change the way we view our lives?

Here are some of my favorite answers, which illustrate the range of responses to the question:

What do you think? If you died today, would you die happy? We’d love to hear your response in the comments section below.

If you've even been on the receiving end of a terminal diagnosis or watched someone struggle with a serious illness, then you know about the identity crisis that strikes when someone becomes sick. Like patients, caregivers too must cope with forces that put pressure on their identities.

A serious diagnosis ushers in a tidal wave of new responsibilities, limitations, and priorities for a patient as well as a patient's caregiver. Caregivers are forced to bend and adapt in unfamiliar ways—ways that often force them to change their very natures.

I'll never forget the day when the figurative baton of power and decision-making passed from my mother to me. She was hospitalized at Georgetown University Medical Center due to a chemo-induced infection. Up to that point, my mother still made final decisions for our single-parent household. She was my mother, and that was her job. As her daughter, it was my responsibility to listen and do what she said.

Friends and family called and wanted to visit us in the hospital, but my mother rejected all overtures. She didn't want anyone to see her dressed as a patient in a hospital bed, hairless and pale. So we sat there—day in and day out, in what I'm convinced is the most depressing room in the entire world—preserving her dignity.

But I ached to let people in. As if having my mother in the hospital wasn't bad enough, the feelings of utter isolation and loneliness were enough to threaten my resolve. They were enough to break me. After several days, I couldn't take it anymore. I decided then and there that I wouldn't allow my mother to push people away when things were at their worst anymore.

"We have to let our friends in," I said to her, tears streaming down my face. "It's too much for just us. It's too much for me if it's just us."

And that was the first day of my reign as Executive Decision-Maker. It officially marked the start of my role as caregiver blurring with my role as daughter. In some ways, I assumed the role of parent, not because it felt right or was comfortable in any way, but because I had no other choice.

I made many important decisions after that, some my mother didn't agree with and most she didn't even know about at all. I decided when to call her doctors or 911, when to prioritize pain relief over chemo treatment, when to hire a full-time nurse, and when to let hospice enter our home.

I was 27 years old when I became my mother's caregiver. My old roles as daughter and child were suddenly gone and replaced by new ones—nurse, financial manager, and decision-maker. I felt overburdened and under-qualified. But when you're pushed into the deep end and panic washes over you, you quickly learn how to get your head above water, even if your stroke is more gawky than graceful, because sinking just isn't an option.

My mother died in January of 2010, and I am no longer a caregiver. In fact, I have reclaimed my role as daughter. Even though my mother is no longer around, I'm still her daughter. And when I wish she were here to advise or support me, I think back to a time before our roles reversed, to a time when she was my caregiver. I know her well enough to guess how she might advise me today.

So again, I'm listening and letting her weigh in, preserving the roles that make us both who we are, inherently and to each other, even though she is not physically present. And I can't think of a better way to preserve her dignity—the dignity that she fought so hard to keep during her final months.

In addition to writing about my experiences on the Everplans blog, I'm also sharing my story over at The Huffington Post. Please check it out!

Twice in one week! Everplans got another awesome press mention this week from GigaOM.com.

Everplans is named as "one of a handful of relatively new startups trying to use technology to help patients think through and share their end of life decisions...[with a] focus on medical planning services, along with a wider range of financial and legacy planning options."

To check out all the great press we've received, head over to our Media Center.

Everplans has been featured on SpryLiving.com, in a piece exploring the importance of planning ahead for your family.

The piece specifically focuses on the necessity for planning for those in the so-called "Sandwich Generation": people who are at once caring for aging parents and young or teenaged children.

From the piece:

Proper planning can make you the hero to your spouse, children, and even your parents. Not only does planning provide you and your loved ones with peace of mind, but a recent study from the Personality and Social Psychology Review showed that it may also actually give you a mental health boost.

Abby Schneiderman and Adam Seifer, co-founders of Everplans, are trying to change the way that people plan. Through their first-of-its-kind free website, Everplans.com, they are providing people with comprehensive information and tools so they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families, around life planning, end-of-life planning, even dealing with death.

via SpryLiving.com

Today, I'm proud to be guest blogging over at Caleb Wilde's blog Confessions of a Funeral Director. My piece is called "5 Tips for Creating a Personal Sendoff," and it's about...well, it's 5 tips for how to make a funeral truly unique and special.

Here's a little preview:

When I tell people that I work in the funeral industry, most become speechless. Looking at me questioningly, they’ll mange to ask, “But…why?” I tell them about the funeral I planned for my father 6 years ago. It was the most emotionally challenging thing I’ve ever done, but it was also the most rewarding. I understand the power that a meaningful funeral or memorial service has in the emotional processing, grieving, and healing after a death. And so I use what I learned from my own experience to guide and empower others to create meaningful sendoffs for their loved ones. I deeply understand the power that a meaningful funeral or memorial service has in the emotional processing, grieving, and healing after a death. I hope that by helping people create personalized services I am alleviating some pain for these families.

Obviously, I can’t tell you what specifically will be meaningful to you or loved ones. I can, however, share the lessons I learned from planning my dad’s funeral and the dozens of special funeral and memorial services I’ve helped other families plan. So without further ado, here are my top 5 things to consider when creating a personalized sendoff.

For the rest of the post, and all 5 of my tips, please head over to Confessions of a Funeral Director and check it out!

Burial or cremation? For centuries, these have been the only two options for what to do with your body when you die. But now these options are starting to change, and expand. Gizmodo recently highlighted 8 Designs that Rethink the Way We’re Buried, looking at how innovative thinkers are changing burial methods. 

This article was inspired by Designboom’s “Design for Death” competition. Designboom pushed innovators to inspire and change the way our culture looks at traditional methods of interment—namely, burial and cremation. Rather than just put ashes into a plain urn, these artists came up with inventive ideas such as shooting them up in a weather balloon or transforming them into a wind chime.

One of the featured innovators is M.I.T. research fellow Jae Rhim Lee. She has invented the Mushroom Death Suit in an attempt to filter out the hundreds of chemicals that every person has in his or her body that seep into the earth when a body decomposes. The Suit is a cotton bodysuit covered in mushroom spores stitched in an arrangement replicating mushrooms’ natural growing pattern. The idea is that when a person dies, her body can be covered in "a ‘cocktail’ of elements which facilitate decomposition and toxin remediation," placed into the suit, and placed in a natural environment to become a patch of mushrooms—and ultimately healthy, chemical-free compost.

Lee says:

“Imagine the Infinity Mushroom as a new way of thinking about death and the relationship between the body and the environment…steps towards accepting the fact that someday I will die and decay…a step toward taking the responsibility towards my own burden on the planet.”

What’s most impressive to me about the Mushroom Death Suit (and all the other competition entries) is number of people who competed, and what their efforts symbolize. The competitors weren’t funeral industry professionals—they’re artists and designers, people who think about the way we live. And they’re pushing for society to accept that it’s time break away from the status quo when it comes to death, and questioning not only how we live, but also how we die. This competition, and the incredible ideas and prototypes it inspired, is a step towards exposing society to more options when it comes to our futures.

via Gizmodo

What happens to your Gmail when you die? What happens to all the photos you've shared on Facebook? Who gets your text messages? And who can access your online accounts?

The more of our lives we spend online, the more digital property we collect, and the more complicated settling our estates will be in the future. And so we need to create digital estate plans for three main reasons:

  1. To communicate our wishes, and let our families know what we want done with our digital assets when we're gone
  2. To help our families, so that they can quickly and easily access our important digital assets when the time comes
  3. To preserve our digital legacy, and make sure that the treasured memories and personal imprints that we leave online can be saved

Everplans now has a suite of articles and tools to help you get started creating your digital estate plan:

We hope that these new articles will help you as you begin to think about digital estate planning and actually create a plan for yourself and your family. If you have any feedback, we'd love to hear from you in the comments below.