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The Coronavirus Is Pushing More People To Ponder If They're Ready For Death

Brian Grimmett
Kansas News Service
A fill-in-the-blank form allowing you to declare a living will.

When the coronavirus first became a big deal in Kansas back in March, elementary school music teacher Emily Boedeker’s life changed quickly.

One day she was singing and laughing with the more than 300 kids that pass through her classroom in Lawrence every day. The next day, school was canceled and she needed to figure out how to upload bits of instruction to YouTube.

Nearly six months later, it’s time for a new school year. The prospect of going back into a classroom when the coronavirus is still spreading has her thinking about worst-case scenarios.

“I don’t think I’m going to die,” she said, “but also … you know.”

Month after month of living with a killer virus on the loose has more of us contemplating our mortality and what choices we might make if things look dire. The anxiety from the pandemic is so universal that even younger adults are starting to plan for the worst.

For Boedeker, questions like what would happen to her children if she died now suddenly seemed less abstract — more urgent. After talking about her concerns with her husband, they decided it was time to make their end-of-life wishes official — and clear.

In Kansas, that’s pretty simple. The state offers several fill-in-the-blank forms online that let you state your basic wishes. One of those forms declares who can make health care decisions for a person if he or she can’t. It’s called durable power of attorney. And unless the form is filled out, not even your spouse can make those decisions for you.

During increasingly morbid conversations with her fellow teachers, Boedeker found many colleagues were like her — interested in making end-of-life plans before the start of the school year. To be legally binding, most of the forms need to be signed by two non-relative witnesses or a notary. So, one evening, she gathered a group of teachers for a will-signing party.

“We kind of joked about it, we’re having a party to sign our end of death wishes,” she said, “but all of us kind of feel like in education that we’re being thrown onto a planet that we don’t know what’s going on.”

They’re not alone. Experts the Kansas News Service spoke with said they’ve all seen a huge increase in traffic to their web pages with end-of-life planning information.Kansas Legal Services, for example, said it’s seen a 15% increase in traffic since the start of the pandemic.

“It’s not an overreaction during COVID-19 to make sure that you have these things in place,” said Erin Yelland, a certified family life educator andK-State extension specialist. “And in fact, it might be one of the silver linings of this pandemic, for example, that people are getting more prepared.”

If COVID gets younger people thinking about death, she said, that’s great. A serious accident or injury could happen to anybody at any time.

The best time to make the decisions? Yelland says when you turn 18.

John Carney, the CEO of the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, suggests high school graduation or the beginning of college as the perfect time to start the conversation.

“There are events in our life that help us say, ‘OK, who’s in charge of me now and what happens to me if something bad happens and this is something we need to do,’” he said.

And the first decision, he said, is picking who you want speaking for you if you’re unable to speak for yourself. While filling out the forms to name an agent is simple, people need to put serious thought into who they choose to give the power over their life or death.

“Picking somebody to make these decisions for you is not a gift,” said Kansas Legal Services executive director Marilyn Harp. “They’re going to have to make some hard decisions down the road.”

After that, she said, it’s time for a long, tough conversation. That might include specifics about if you want to survive on a feeding tube or using a ventilator. But Harp said the most important thing to discuss are your values — what does life mean to you, and when would you want to let go?

Boedecker, the music teacher, says because of COVID she’s a lot more prepared to die. That’s something she never thought she’d say at such a young age.

“My parents who are in their 60s are kind of finalizing stuff. Just you know, here’s where the key is to the safety deposit box.” she said. “And then I’m sitting here telling my mom the same thing. Here’s where my will is.”

Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Brian Grimmett is a two-time Regional Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist covering energy and environment stories across the state of Kansas.