What Civilians Can Learn From the Army About Death Planning

Back in April, I had to attend the first of two, two-day pre-predeployment sessions with the Army (don’t even get me started on the wisdom of having two of them). One day was spent on medical exams and the other day was dedicated to a massive variety of administrative paperwork.

One station dealt with death. It wasn’t labeled the death station (I’ve asked around – it doesn’t have a formal name. I think it was station three that weekend). The first person I checked in with updated my military insurance information. We discussed who gets money if I die, including a backup recipient in case that person is dead. We reviewed the beneficiaries’ names, addresses, and various contacts. I had to sign several copies of the forms and they were witnessed.

The next person I talked to at the death station asked about who gets my last paycheck. I was also asked if I had a will (at that time, I didn’t, but I had one made during the summer).

The final person at the death station inquired about who gets my remains upon returning to the states and who is my health care proxy.

All of this was asked in a very direct, matter-of-fact way. There were easily 150 soldiers that went through the station that day. No one got angry. Or cried. Or, from what I could tell, was filled with despair. It was similar to reviewing our vaccines or our educational history or other military records. Every year that I’ve been in the Army I’ve had to go over the military insurance and the beneficiaries. But the last paycheck, the will, the remains, and the health care proxy were all new queries.

A close friend of mine had a bit of a difficult time when her father died. There wasn’t a health care proxy or an advanced directive, and it made a stress period in the hospital much harder as her family members argued over what should be done.

Having this paperwork done well in advance ensures that the decisions are made rationally and that the guidelines are in place. It also makes sure the person dying is treated the way they want (and not the way the loudest/most difficult family member wants).

I have been teaching at the Rutgers School of Social Work since 2011. Dozens of my students have interned at nursing homes or convalescent centers. Many of them were tasked with asking the residents questions about their will, funeral plans, advanced directives, and/or health care proxies. My students were regularly berated for bringing these topics up (“she wants me to die!” one octogenarian yelled). Granted, part of it may have been their delivery (mostly their discomfort with it), but these are very important discussions that need to be held. Younger family members usually hesitate to bring these up, as they don’t want to cause their loved ones distress. And that is a massive mistake. These are hugely important matters that must be settled.

Stunningly, the military does an excellent job at this. The civilian world can learn a lot from that process. So, to be clear:

  1. people need to have a will and name an executor (you should name a backup, but not co-executors – some people with two children do this and it’s really foolish)
  2. people should have an advanced directive written out
  3. people should have documentation signed that names a health care proxy
  4. people should have life insurance and have it regularly reviewed and updated
  5. people should make sure that their loved ones know about the existence and location (of copies) of items 1-4

For those of you that are looking for a simpler solution, this document (thanks April Cardone) covers the advanced directive and health care proxy (you still have to work out your will and insurance). If you are over 40, you should have these done. If you have elderly family members, you should get on them to get these things done. But be mindful of how you bring it up. You might want to enlist the help of a social worker.