All boxed up, ready to go

You don't have to wait till you are sick and dying to put your affairs in order

There are some things you read that stick in your head forever.

For me, it is a snippet from a Time magazine article many years ago.

I don't recall the details of the story, but it was about a woman who died while she was out for lunch.

Her family had to retrieve her belongings from her office. Among the things on her desk was a darkened, half-eaten apple, her teeth marks still etched in its flesh.

That image has haunted me since.

How awful, I think, for the family to encounter such a stark reminder of the dead woman.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

And how embarrassing - not that the dead can feel embarrassment - for the woman to have left behind something so personal and raw for her grieving loved ones to discover.

It is for this reason that I keep my desk at work fairly tidy when I pack up for the night. No half-eaten fruit or anything alarming lying around.

It is also for this reason that I've always felt the need to do more to make sure my affairs are in order, in case something untoward suddenly happens to me.

The older I get, the more aware I become that my life can be snuffed out in an untimely moment and manner.

You could be at the wrong place at the wrong time, or a heart attack or aneurysm could finish you off.

Or, one wrong move when driving can do you in, like the close shave I had last week when I hesitated at a traffic light at a major junction.

The light had just gone from green to amber and I didn't know if my car could make it across in time. I decided at the last moment not to risk it. A van behind me was going quite fast and braked. The skid sounds caused my heart to lurch.

Increasingly, the phrase "if I am still around" crops up in conversations I have with friends my age - and it's not that we are even that old.

A colleague and I were discussing the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and how much fun it would be to cover it - if we are still around, that is, we both said, laughing. And 2020 is just four years away.

When I pass by hoardings for the Thomson-East Coast Line and see dates like 2024 - when the line is scheduled to be fully completed - I snigger to myself and wonder if I will still be around.

When I read how Mandai will become an eco destination in 2023, that same question pops into my head. Ditto the Singapore-Malaysia High Speed Rail targeted for 2026.

While I, of course, have no idea when my time will be up, I do know that I would hate it if I left a mess behind.

Recently, I had a chance to put some of my affairs in order.

After 15 years in one office, I had to shift to another in some other part of the newsroom. This meant transferring all my things to the new room.

I've been in the same job for 31 years. One accumulates a lot of stuff in that time.

Even after tossing out quite a bit of my things, I ended up with five boxes of books, newspaper clippings, files and assorted bric-a- brac.

I don't need 80 per cent of the items but was loath to throw them away.

There are handwritten letters from readers all the way back from the 1990s (I started this column in July 1994), cards from colleagues who have left and even items like dictionaries (I can't remember the last time I consulted a dictionary). I treasure them all.

Over the weekend, I went to Ikea and bought a few nice boxes. I then organised all my things. I packed and labelled them neatly in the new containers and stored them in a cupboard.

Should I suddenly drop dead, at least there won't be much clearing up for anyone to do. Almost all my office belongings are boxed up and ready to go.

I felt relieved and much lighter.

I have yet to sort out my things at home though, and I will get round to doing it.

But I have taken other steps to make sure I make a tidy exit, like drawing up a will. In fact, I have updated it twice.

You don't have to be old and dying to take stock of your life and start putting your affairs in order.

It's not just physical and financial housekeeping that I'm referring to, but relationships as well.

Loose ends can be tied up so there is no cause for regret for either you or your loved ones should you fall seriously ill or die.

Studies have been done on the regrets of people who are dying. Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative nurse, wrote that the five top regrets are:

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Researching on this topic on the Internet, I came across a wonderful idea - the Stanford Friends and Family Letter Project.

Basically, it's a guide to writing a goodbye letter to people you care about so that you can express gratitude, forgiveness and regret, which will hopefully bring peaceful closure for everyone when the time comes.

The project started in 2015 and involves a Friends and Family letter template. In the template, you are asked seven questions to help you do a "life review":

1. Acknowledge the important people in your life.

2. Remember treasured moments from your life.

3. Apologise to those you love if you hurt them.

4. Forgive those who love you if they have hurt you.

5. Express your gratitude for all the love and care you have received.

6. Tell your friends and family how much you love them.

7. Take a moment to say "goodbye".

There are two versions of the template - an Illness version and a Healthy version which people can write while still hale and hearty. Letters can be left with a friend or lawyer to give to loved ones at the right time.

Dr VJ Periyakoil, a geriatrics and palliative care doctor at Stanford, said the letter project was based on years of caring for thousands of seriously ill patients and their families.

In an article in The New York Times, she said: " It can be done when someone is ill, but it's really worth doing when one is still healthy, before it's too late."

On completing a life review, most people are able to achieve some measure of peace that comes from deeply reflecting about key life experiences and relationships, said the project's website.

I haven't tried the letter, but it is now on my to-do list. I am sure it will give me food for thought about how I have been living my life so far.

On death, French novelist Marcel Proust wrote:

"We say that the hour of death cannot be forecast, but when we say this we imagine that hour as placed in an obscure and distant future. It never occurs to us that it has any connection with the day already begun or that death could arrive this same afternoon, this afternoon which is so certain and which has every hour filled in advance."

I am nowhere near as prepared as I can be for that final hour, but I have made a start.

At the very least, I know I will leave behind a tidy work table.

•Sumiko Tan's column will take a break. She'll resume writing in January with a new series. Follow her on Twitter @STsumikotan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 09, 2016, with the headline 'All boxed up, ready to go'. Print Edition | Subscribe