Brandi Alexander was relieved when she got the news that her father’s cancer was in remission in 2003. Neither she nor her five siblings subsequently took the time to talk with their father about his final wishes in the event he became ill or died.
But in November 2010, Alexander flew home from Denver to New Orleans for Thanksgiving and learned that her father’s cancer had returned. Less than two months later, Ferdinand Alexander was dead.
“”When my father came out of remission, he declined very quickly and none of us knew what he wanted,” Alexander said. “I had never had a conversation with him. I had all of this knowledge about end of life things but I had never talked to my own father who had a terminal disease. He was remarried and his new wife was making all of the decisions.”
Alexander’s comments came at the conclusion of a forum entitled “The Journey Home: An African American Conversation,” in which senior citizen advocates, morticians, pastors, financial planners and even an emergency room physician came together at SunTrust Bank to talk about death, dying and end-of life choices.
“My father had six kids and we didn’t agree with his wife, who had the power of attorney. And instead of honoring his life we were battling about his death,” said Alexander, regional campaign & outreach manager for Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life advocacy group that used to be known as the Hemlock Society.
While talking about death and dying is almost taboo in the African American community, Daniel Wilson, national director of Compassion & Choices said, “We have to look at the whole spectrum of what end-of-life looks like, from the point of diagnosis to what you need to look for when you are choosing a physician to should I go to hospice.”
John M. Thompson, director of the D.C. Office on Aging, said, “In the District of Columbia we have 104,000 seniors and coming to an event like this is so important not only for the seniors but for their caregivers and the young to understand how to properly plan for the future.”
“Who’s going to be responsible for executing that will, if mom and dad dies?” Thompson said. “This is a chance to have a peaceful ending for mom and dad as they move on with life and live in harmony together.
Dr. Melissa Clarke, a local emergency physician, said, “I have been in too many situations where people have come in and based upon their age should have an advance health-care directive and it should be clear what should be done for them, but it’s not.”
Lynne T. McGuire, president of McGuire Funeral Service Inc. in the District, said that she wishes that she could have the opportunity to talk with families before someone dies. “It is bigger than just funeral planning. The whole end of life spectrum: How do I want to be cared for ? Folks are starting to talk about it, but we really do need documentation.”
For example, McGuire said the funeral home buried a woman who was 102 and learned too late that her husband who died 60 years ago, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery and there was space for her. “There was a grave reserved for her but it is too late.”
Tiffany Tippins, CEO of Impactful Wealth Solutions, said, “I think the biggest thing I see in planning for death is the lack of planning: Making decisions, letting someone know when you can’t speak for yourself and when you can act for yourself, what do you want to happen.”
The Rev. Thomas L. Bowen, assistant pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church in the District, said in the same way couples are offered premarital counseling, pastors need to offer counseling before people leave this earth. “A lot of times we as pastors are the first responders. When death comes, people say, ‘Lord, what am I going to do,’ then they call the preacher and say, ‘what am I going to do.'”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Compassion & Choices. It has been corrected.