How Being Prepared for End-of-Life Helps Us with Our Grief

Jan 24, 2022 | 0 comments

How Being Prepared for End-of-Life Helps Us with Our Grief

Over these past two pandemic years, the shadow of death and grief has touched many of us. I recently saw a billboard for a local funeral home: “Good grief comes with instructions. Preplan.”  Boy, that hit home.

Gary Mayhew grief Upon My Death letter

Gary Mayhew, man of math and music, wrote an Upon My Death letter, with his usual humor.

My longtime friend Gary Mayhew had taken my advice. He’d written an 11-page letter titled Upon My Death. What a gift that turned out to be.

Tall and skinny, witty and kind, Gary was a man of math and music. He taught advanced mathematics to high school students. He could play all kinds of music on guitar, from Bach to folk. I loved that he could sing and play humorist Tom Lehrer’s song, “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” – by heart.

He was a confirmed bachelor and creature of habit. Monday and Thursday, he played strategy games with “the boys.” Wednesday night was guitar group. And every other Tuesday, Gary took me out to dinner. This continued after I married my husband, Dave. Gary played guitar at our wedding 21 years ago. Dave joined us dining out, and Gary always picked up the check.

Gary’s Upon My Death letter addressed his sister with his usual humor.

Dear Debbe,

I am addressing this document to you because you are the family member most likely to bear the burden of cleaning up after my demise…. Frankly, I wish there were some sort of hassle-free automated system to take care of these end-of-life matters quickly and painlessly, but sadly, there is always work to be done by those closest to the deceased (that would be me, in this case). The best I can do is to smooth the path as much as possible. That’s the purpose of this letter.

Gary smoked earlier in life. Smoking led to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD. For more than five years, he was tethered to an oxygen tank or a concentrator. Eventually, walking just a few steps exhausted him. He went on home hospice care for three months.

During that time, Dave and I brought dinner to Gary’s home every Tuesday night. The day Gary died, I called at 11:00 a.m. to discuss what we’d eat. Green chile cheeseburgers, an excellent choice. I called back at 4:00 to confirm what kind of cheese he wanted – no answer.

While I had a key to his house, usually, the door was unlocked when we came over. Not this time. The lights were out. Gary wasn’t sitting on his usual chair in the dining area. I followed the oxygen tube into the bedroom. He wasn’t there. The oxygen tube ended at the door to the bathroom.

There was Gary, curled up on the white tile floor. No pulse, room temperature, quite dead.

Now Gary’s letter and preplanning proved so valuable. I called the hospice for a nurse to come make the official pronouncement. The nurse called the funeral home where Gary had pre-arranged his cremation 10 years earlier.

I called his sister Debbe in California. His friend Rick would call the gaming buddies. Doc would call the music friends. I let his landlord know his 20-year tenant had left the building.

We knew where to find important papers and the passwords for online accounts. He provided contacts for his bank, credit card, retirement pension, and utilities. Three pages of his 11-page document were devoted to describing his multiple guitars, their history and value.

When Gary’s sisters arrived a week later, we had a plan to disperse his possessions in three days. The guitars were professionally crated and shipped to California. Friends were invited to come take what they wanted. There were hundreds of vinyl albums and books, games, DVDs, household goods. Most of the albums were donated to Goodwill. They filled the cargo area of my Subaru Outback. A service called Junk King cleaned out what was left in 45 minutes.

Gary wrote, I request that I receive no funeral, but I think Gail will insist on organizing a memorial service. I’m ambivalent about that, but being dead, there isn’t much I can do about it. Of course, we held a memorial service, outdoors in a park near my house. No pigeons were poisoned. Then we had a party.

Gary’s life was worth celebrating… and yours is too. Who will need to be called upon your death? Better start writing.

One of the items I saved from Gary’s house was a Tom Lehrer songbook from 1954. It includes the song, “Be Prepared.”

Be prepared! That’s the Boy Scouts’ marching song. Be prepared! As through life you march along. Be prepared to hold your liquor pretty well. Don’t write naughty words on walls if you can’t spell. Be prepared!

Because good grief comes with instructions.

Consulting Testimonial: Gary Mayhew


Gail Rubin, Certified Thanatologist and The Doyenne of Death®, is an award-winning speaker, author, and coordinator of the Before I Die New Mexico Festival ( She is also available as an informed advocate and consultant for planning ahead. You can download a free planning form to write your own Upon My Death letter from her website,


A Good Goodbye