Every year, line-of-duty-death (LODD) reports enumerate those we have lost. In between, the news of each death drizzles in day by day through various media outlets. It is a way to offer silent witness to the depletion from our ranks of strong, willing people who have made what is called “the ultimate sacrifice.”
Typically, the majority of LODDs stem from either cardiac events or traffic mishaps. In 2020, we (along with the rest of humanity) have also been trounced by a microscopic demon, COVID-19. Each loss is heartbreaking, especially when we see who is left behind: spouses, children, other loved ones.
In 2009, I got that call. My cousin, Mike Downs, lived for decades in Alaska and was among the first registered emergency medical technicians in the state. A solitary man, he had no one to pick up the pieces should something happen to him. “I’ve got your back, Mike,” I told him for many years, never imagining that he’d die young, at age 62.
Mike had the best death imaginable for a guy who found the prospects of a slow decline horrifying: With winterization of his house completed, he and his best friend headed out for a glorious day of late-season fishing on a boat on the Gulf of Alaska on a calm, sunny day. On the way back to Seward, he said he felt a little tired and went below deck to rest. He never woke up.
The next five-plus years as his estate’s representative (“executor”) taught me a lot about the logistics of what happens to those left behind when a person dies. Mike had always told me that, if anything happened, I should speak with his lawyer, Randy, who would know what to do. When I arrived in his Alaska office, Randy leaned back in his chair, paused, then said, “Yeah, well, Mike was supposed to come in next week to work on his will.”
Death is hard enough to face, but facing your own? We’d probably all love not to have to do that. But denying the possibility is kind of short-sighted. For your loved ones, the searing pain of loss is enough, but they also face loads of decisions, many that have to happen fast. With preparation, that part doesn’t need to be quite so awful, but it does mean thinking ahead and giving them some guidance.
Are your loved ones prepared? Are you prepared?
What would your final wishes be regarding burial/cremation, funeral, memorial, choice of cemetery? What should be done with your assets—your dog, cat, horse, car, house, hunting cabin, other property, and tangible possessions? What messages would you want given to your kids (if they’re young) as they grow up as to who you were and what you believed or treasured? Can you offer insight to your spouse and other loved ones about how to move forward?
Many of the answers to these questions become relevant as well if you’re struck by life-altering disability. What about that netherworld of long-term coma? What if you were rendered quadriplegic? No one traverses these dire landscapes alone. If you communicate now with those who will be by your side, you will make their lives immensely more manageable. Promise.
Luckily, Mike and I had often chatted about what he wanted done with his assets—which was good, since I discovered while making an inventory that my self-made long-haul trucker cousin (who seldom wrote anything down) had bootstrapped himself into true wealth. Included were three real estate properties in Alaska and northern Idaho (where he went to “snowbird” in the winter), including one gold-panning tract 17 miles from the pavement and patrolled by large brown bears. He had often told his lawyer and me that, with no one to leave it to, his estate should go to animal charities and a land trust. It’s a very long story, but the upshot was that we were able to make a reasonable proposal to the probate judge and honorably follow Mike’s wishes the best we could. He didn’t leave us completely in the dark, but he could have made things a lot easier. Lesson learned.
Both Mike and I knew, as do you, that working in the emergency services raises the chance of an early, unexpected death. It’s only fair to your loved ones to be forthright about what to do “if.” Actually, it’s something I wish everyone would do, since so many lives end unexpectedly.
At a minimum, it’s prudent and responsible to do at least the following:
- Write a will. Even a handwritten one can work, especially when signed and dated (check your local laws).
- Name and notify the person you want to handle your affairs, and make sure that person has a copy of your will plus (as a bonus) a written document of other wishes such as a list of tangible items and who should get them.
- Keep a current list of bills that are on autopay. In this digital age, please tell a trusted soul where to find your various passwords.
- Talk with loved ones about cremation vs. burial and your preferences about memorial services.
- Update your plan when major changes occur in your life—marriage or divorce, births of children, deaths of parents, relocations to new states, and especially when that favorite aunt leaves you an inheritance (wouldn’t that be nice!).
No one expects to grapple with the death of a loved one when they get up each day. It’s a turn of events and never the day you were planning, but denial doesn’t grant a “pass” on wretched moments. As these COVID times have so poignantly demonstrated, they can/will/do blast their way in, ready or not. Those left behind who know the decedent’s wishes can benefit immeasurably because you were smart enough to have the hard conversation.
KATE DERNOCOEUR, retired firefighter/NREMT, serves as a medical examiner investigator as well as a SARTECH-II with Kent County’s SAR K9 unit in western Michigan. She retired from the Ada (MI) Fire Department in 2019 and was a paramedic for the Denver (CO) Paramedic Division (1979-1986). Her emergency services career began in 1974 with the Vail (CO) Mountain Rescue Group. A journalist and MFA (creative writing), she has written for EMS publications, including JEMS, since 1979, and was a frequent speaker at EMS conferences from 1984-2004. Her book Streetsense: Communication, Safety and Control was released in its 4th edition in 2020. She also coauthored Principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch with Dr. Jeff Clawson, MD (first edition, 1988), among other books. Her blog, “Generally Write,” is at www.katedernocoeur.com.