One of the most sobering words in our language is “death,” especially when talking about our own. That’s precisely when most of us don’t want to talk about it. But for this discussion, we must.

A lot of misinformation and outright lies have been tossed about in our current health care imbroglio as it deals with end-of-life issues. The only reference to this subject in proposed legislation deals with doctors being paid by Medicare for certain appointments to talk with patients about living wills, durable powers of attorney and other medical details associated with our last days. Nothing else.

While the “Wasilla Wailer” blew it all out of proportion with her “death panels” lunacy, she did perform a public service of sorts by highlighting the end-of-life discussion. Not as she sees it but as it should be seen.

Federal law already requires certain patients of hospitals and other forms of institutional care execute a “living will” upon entry. Simple in form, that document is our most trusted way to let families and health care professionals know exactly what sorts of medical treatment we want … or don’t want … when we are no longer rational or otherwise able to communicate.

You can specify using all the medical technology available to keep yourself “alive” no matter what your condition. You can select fluids and other comfort measures to be administered until your death. You can tell ‘em to just “pull the plug” if that’s your desire. You can also appoint someone to see that your wishes are carried out. No exception. But the decisions are made when you are legally capable.

The durable power of attorney for health care is just as important. It gives the named person authority to make decisions regarding your life so other “interested parties” can’t alter your instructions.

Had Terry Schiavo had those documents in her health records several years ago, she would have passed away quietly and with dignity, rather than becoming a rally cry for anti-abortion extremists and a self-inflected embarrassment for certain members of Congress.

I’ve been named the executor in living wills and holder of durable powers of attorney for health care several times. It is an awesome responsibility but one I accepted gladly. To know that someone trusts you so completely that you are given such power in their lives is as much a gesture of love and respect as it is a trust.

I have stood at more than one bedside, holding the hand of a dying loved one, ready to do not what I wanted but what they requested. It was both terrifying and reassuring at the same time. As I helped carry out their wishes, I wondered what would have happened if they had not had the foresight to make their own decisions.

There’s nothing scary about either that time in our lives or dealing with the simple preparations to see that we are treated as we desire. Those that have tried to make it so are wrong. Dead wrong.

While these instruments are now required by law in only limited circumstances, each of us should execute and file these forms with our wills and other personal documents. Our physicians and attorneys should have copies in their files as well. You can download them right off the Internet.

It’s not enough to just tell someone what we want. It must be in writing! Working in Hospice care, I saw many instances of an estranged child or former spouse showing up at the beside or at the funeral home. Even a previously unknown blood relative. Conflicting claims were made based on supposed previous “conversations” with the dead or dying. Families already in grief were thrown into confusing and costly legal battles with people they never knew existed. And it was always … always … needless.

There’s an additional step I would consider though it isn’t required by law. Either have a conversation with your closest family members about what you want medically in your last days as you fill out these forms, or fill them out and give each a copy. Avoid any possible misunderstanding of exactly what you want. And expect.

Regular wills are important and should be kept up-to-date. (Reminder to wife: we need to do that.) But those documents deal primarily with things: not with your life as you want it lived. Or ended.

Frankly, in the scheme of things, I don’t give a damn who gets the car or the artwork or even what few dollars are left. What I DO care about is that I’m not left weakly hanging onto life with plastic tubing, interminable liquid feeding and fouling the bed every few hours. When the time comes, really comes, I want to let go with as much dignity as I can muster.

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