Dead People Suck

As pilots we embrace life with passion, and the stimulus for my contributions has always been how to stay healthy and fly longer. Much of the communication AOPA offers is about aviation safety, so you can stay alive.

We all know about the two certainties in life, death and taxes, but given both have very firm dates, why is it very few people pay attention to their calendars? April 15th approaches every single year and we scramble to ensure everything is in order for Uncle Sam. But that other date on the calendar? We often find ourselves less than prepared. 

As I come to terms with losing my mum and the events of the past few months, I notice that I process in aviation terms how I am feeling. I have felt rudderless since her passing, lacking thrust to propel me forward, short of lift. It’s called grief, and the elements – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – are not flowing in sequence like a well-ordered departure from a busy airport, but rather, an ill-disciplined formation that keeps unsettling me as I check my internal TCAS looking to avoid a collision. And I have had several near-misses.

So, recently, when a pal suggested we go fly his plane, although I enjoyed the experience, I realized I should not be in the left seat on that particular day, exactly three months since she passed. My mind is elsewhere and when one flies, every brain cell needs to be aligned with the task at hand. When anniversaries of sad or traumatic events come around, consider doing something other than flying. You may think you are okay, but post-traumatic stress might be eroding your ability to concentrate. Just to be clear, PTS is not the same as PTSD; it is a natural reaction to an event that caused emotional or physical distress and wired your brain to remember the resultant reactions. And nobody is immune.

To be fair, mum was old and frail, and the last couple of years were not of good quality. She was a smart woman who in her later years delighted in tripping me up with general knowledge quizzes to prove she was not losing it, who was never unkind or rude, who smiled easily and laughed at her own jokes, and who showed pride in her personal appearance. Until those last two years. So her passing was, in many ways, a release.

After her departure, unfortunately, there was some wake turbulence – a will that was improperly filed, a trail of financial issues, and other things for our family to resolve. 

So what did I learn from these experiences and from Ms. Kilmartin’s book? Clearly set out your end-of-life expectations; sit down with your attorney and ensure your wishes will be respected. For instance, I discovered that in the event of me becoming incapacitated and dependent on long-term life support, the decision to unplug me rested with my children, the last thing I would want for them, so I changed it and set very clear guidelines.

I created a document listing all that would need to be done after I take off for the last time and appointed an attorney to do everything so my family would have to do nothing. I took care of how the last bits of me should be disposed – and yes, there is an airplane involved.

While death may not be a laughing matter, ignoring it is no answer. Maybe humor, as used by Ms. Kilmartin, can help address these topics. Oscar Wilde, a great humorist, had this to say on the matter as his life faded: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”

One of the first things I read in Dead People Suck resonated with me – we don’t talk about this subject enough, which is bizarre, because it is one thing everyone has in common. And having taken the above steps, I must say I feel better. I hope you do too.

Jonathan Sackier

Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.

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