Death. The word alone sends shivers up our spines. It conjures images of faceless, hooded entities wielding calling-card scythes; fire and brimstone; and lonely graveyards on dark, thundery nights. But the reality is far more mundane, at least for those scurrying survivors who must make quick decisions about travel and funeral arrangements, and long-range ones about settling a loved one’s affairs.

The death of a close friend or family member is a time of upheaval and sorrow, one where we try to bring our “best game” to whatever challenges loom ahead. My brother’s untimely passing two weeks ago triggered an unplanned cross-country trip at the busiest time of year; nasty discussions about the pros and cons of cremation; and the seemingly-impossible task of finding a suit, underwear and socks in an empty house so cluttered with ten years’ worth of foodstuffs and hoarded paper goods, it could have doubled as a neighborhood mega-mart.

This started me thinking about the responsibility we each have in planning for our own eventual demise. We all know death is an inevitable part of life—the only variables being “when,” and “how”—not “if.” So why do so few of us take time to put our affairs in order? Do we think death will somehow elude us? That it won’t be our problem once the time comes? Or do we simply choose to bury our heads in the proverbial sand and not think about it at all?

While we all “front” to some degree during the daylight portion of our lives, our true colors inevitably reveal themselves in the harsh glare of nightfall. Only then does it become obvious whether we gave any real thought to the raw vulnerability of those we leave behind. No matter our age, there are appropriate steps we should take to prepare for our unavoidable transition from this earth, so as not to unduly burden our loved ones with excessive bills, preventable disagreements, extra work, and unwarranted stress. There are the obvious things we can and should do, like leaving a will, health care directive, and power(s) of attorney; designating direct beneficiaries for some or all of our financial accounts; and leaving clear instructions as to where to find important people and papers. But there are more subtle preparations we can and should make—tough conversations to be had with those closest to us about our wishes and preferences, and who within our extended circle of friends and professional colleagues should be contacted when our time comes.

And then there’s the pesky matter of stuff. How much dusty, accumulated junk will you leave behind for your devastated loved ones to sift through? Or, to put it another way, how much of their time will you rob with the daunting task of clearing out your worldly possessions? Ask yourself, too, whether you are leaving behind any bombshell surprises for them to find. Remember, death honors no “closely-guarded secrets;” your unsuspecting loved ones will uncover your skeletons while clearing out your closets during their darkest hour.

One needn’t dwell on death to comprehend its inescapable odds. You can opt for a haphazard “express check-out” from your earthbound motel, leaving it to those closest to you to pack and load your life’s baggage. Or, you can take a few simple steps every now and again to declutter, purge, and smooth their way through a predictably difficult time. The choice is yours, but like life itself, it won’t last forever.