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Last week, my wife and I lay in the darkness, our heartbeats ringing in our ears as we recalled the day’s tragedy. So much had happened so quickly that it was difficult to process or verbalize.

That is, until my wife posed the question that encapsulated our fears.

“Do you have a living will?”

“No,” I said.

But even as I spoke, I knew that answer had to change. The day’s events dictated as much.

We’d spent the earlier part of the evening at a hospital, visiting a beloved family member who’d served as the best man at our wedding, who’d joined me to watch history on the night Barack Obama won the White House, and who’d been there for more significant moments than I could count. He’s not much older than me, and he wasn’t supposed to have a stroke. But he did. And seeing him in such dire straits not only made me consider his mortality, it forced me to think of my own.

What would happen if I were unable to function due to a medical emergency? What decisions would my family have to make on my behalf? Would there be a way for me to ease their suffering? The answers, as my wife alluded to, could be issued through a living will. That’s a document detailing one’s desires regarding medical treatment should one become permanently unconscious or suffer from a condition that could result in death despite medical interventions.

In Pennsylvania, as in most states, a competent adult can pen a living will detailing their medical wishes and appoint someone to act as their healthcare agent. That agent is empowered to make decisions on the affected party’s behalf. Under Pennsylvania law, the document is legally required to be signed by two people over the age of 18. Neither of those signers can be the healthcare agent named in the document.

I wondered about the circumstances under which a living will should be composed, so I asked estate attorney Gary Zlotnick, of Zarwin, Baum, DeVito, Kaplan, Schaer & Toddy, P.C.

“I always tell people it’s an individual decision,” Zlotnick said. “If you don’t want your life prolonged or sustained if the situation arises, take the time to do a living will. Otherwise the decision could be in the hands of your loved ones.”

A common misconception is that living wills are just for the elderly. Not so, Zlotnick said. “Even when you’re fairly young, you don’t know. What if you’re involved in a car accident?”

Or what if something else unexpected takes place, as in the tragic case of Jahi McMath, the 13-year-old girl who was declared brain dead in December after undergoing tonsil surgery in California? Because Jahi is a minor, she was not subject to a living will. However, her case is illustrative of what can happen when medical decisions draw families into emotional quagmires.

In December, doctors at Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland performed a routine tonsillectomy to correct Jahi’s sleep apnea—a condition that caused Jahi to stop breathing in her sleep. She was alert and speaking following the surgery, but shortly afterward, in an intensive-care unit, she began bleeding profusely, and according to family members, went into cardiac arrest.

Days later, she was declared brain dead, meaning her brain was unable to perform. When brain death occurs, some function, such as a heartbeat, may linger, but the body is essentially unable to execute normal functions such as eating and breathing without assistance. That’s why Jahi was connected to a ventilator.

While doctors suggested disconnecting Jahi from the machine, the family insisted that there were signs of life. A court battle ensued, the media was contacted, and while the Alameda County Coroner issued a death certificate saying that the child died on Dec. 12, Jahi’s heart continues to beat. Per a California court order, she was released this week to her family.

As a parent, I can’t imagine the grief Jahi’s family is experiencing. Nor can I say what I would do if faced with the prospect of a child who requires the assistance of a machine to breathe. I do, however, know that I would not want my family or anyone else to bear the $2,000 to $4,000 per day it can cost to keep a patient alive in an intensive-care unit.

Fortunately for Jahi’s family, the publicity surrounding her plight prompted several facilities to offer to provide the ventilation and other services she requires. She was moved to one of those facilities this week.

Still, ethical questions remain. Is it morally right to keep someone alive by artificial means if doctors and state officials declare them to be dead? Is it emotionally wise to hang on to someone if their physical body is all that remains?

In the case of our sick loved one whose stroke prompted our discussion of living wills, we shouldn’t have to answer those questions. With treatment and rehabilitation, he will recover.

However, if a day should arrive when my family is standing over me, and I am unable to see them, to love them, or to respond to their tears, I want them to do what is best for all of us.

Let me go. That’s what I plan to write in my living will.