Getting Ready for Death

Grim Reaper photo by Anthony Quintano

Why Steve Harper, a perfectly healthy guy, decided to have his will done.

I was in a workshop recently where we did an exercise – and I died. The rules were clear: only one of us could survive a terrible boating accident. We had one minute to “decide” who it would be. It wasn’t me.

After learning this news, we had another minute to write a letter to loved ones. I was angry and sad as I wrote mine.

I wanted to be articulate and masterful – I’m a writer, after all. And, so self-aware! But my letter was desperate and choppy. The words were inadequate.

I rambled on about how I love my family and my partner and I awkwardly asked them to make sure they’re getting residuals and payments from my agent. Residuals, really? It was clear that I wanted my writing to support them – I wanted to leave a legacy that would contribute to their lives long after I couldn’t.

That awkward letter was a wake-up call. I wanted to leave clear instructions behind. I needed to create a will.

What a drag. I’d rather put it off. I’d rather not think about my own death.


More than five years ago, I lost a partner to suicide. I would detail what happened, but I don’t know exactly what happened. Some combo of mental illness, shame and paranoia showed up and two weeks later he was gone; having jumped out the window of our Manhattan apartment.

It was crazy. It was devastating – and it happened.

He didn’t have a will. Friends helped me find an attorney. Because we weren’t married (not an option at the time) I had to get permission from his parents to be the administrator of the estate.

From the estate funds I paid for his funeral, his headstone, his burial.

Having no idea what he wanted – the family and I collaborated on the particulars of paying respects: a funeral in Pennsylvania and a memorial in New York – donations in his honor to the Sierra Club. The grief was heavy and draining, and I was in no mood to make decisions on any of those details. But that was the horrible task before me.

After the exercise where I ‘died’, that sense of grief and frustration flooded back to me. Knowing what it was like to make arrangements in the midst of emotional turmoil, I wanted to leave instructions for my people. I did some research and found an attorney.

Over the course of several months, we created three documents: a trust, a will and an advance health care directive. As strange as it seemed, I embarked on a series of conversations with loved ones and friends asking them to support me as health care proxy, power of attorney, and executor. It was weird, but it had to be done.

On the day I signed the papers at my attorney’s office, I got really sad. It seemed like by signing, I’d just confirmed (on paper, in the eyes of the law) that I will die. I’ve affirmed that it’s coming, I’m participating in its arrival. There’s nothing happy about that.

But what’s the alternative? According to an ABC News article* 50% of American’s do not have a will. Half of us will die with no instructions for our loved ones.

I don’t want to be in such a painful circumstance again. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

The good news is this: I’ve pulled my head out of the sand. No one lives forever and I’m no exception. And pushing through the denial and the awkwardness will make my passing a little more manageable for those I leave behind.

And maybe there will be some residuals, too.

Photo: Anthony Quintano / flickr

About Steve Harper

Steve Harper is a writer, actor and creativity coach living in Los Angeles. Find our more about him at or

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