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In the coming days, Nancy Cruzan will die. Her passing will mark seven years of bitter and emotional turmoil for her family.

Unlike thousands of comatose or near-comatose patients in medical facilities across the country, the nation grew familiar with the story of Nancy Cruzan. Her parents' three-year legal battle to allow their daughter to die had gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Joe and Joyce Cruzan sought legal permission to remove a surgically implanted feeding tube. The battle ended last Friday, when the tube was removed.

Whether we agree with her parents' struggle or not, the Cruzan case has taught us all a lesson about the importance of living wills. No matter what our age, we should prepare for the unthinkable by expressing our wishes for our own fates, both verbally and in writing.

A living will is a legal document in which a person outlines the extent of medical care he wants to be administered, if any, should he become critically or terminally ill and can't speak for himself.

After years of legal tussles, the nation's highest court ruled in June that it is reasonable for Missouri to require "clear and convincing" proof that Cruzan would have wanted to be allowed to die. The problem in the Cruzan case was that she left no written living will or other written proof of her intentions that should govern her own situation. That proof was recently provided when three co-workers came forward and testified that Cruzan had expressed to them her distaste for extraordinary measures, and that she did not want them taken for her should she ever be in such a situation.

Missouri legislators also face a challenge this session: to make the state's living will statutes more understandable. The current state law applies only to terminal illnesses, which did not include Cruzan's situation.

Although most people assume that a living will means the patient's wishes will be followed under any circumstances, that's not the case in Missouri. Legal experts advise that a "durable" power of attorney may be needed, in addition to expressing your views to family and friends.

Cruzan's plight differs from many right-to-die cases in that the 33-year-old woman was not kept alive by machines. Although severely brain damaged, doctors said Cruzan could live another 30 to 40 years in a "persistent vegetative state" with the help of a feeding tube. Physicians offer no hope of recovery for Cruzan, who was critically injured in a 1983 traffic accident near Carthage.

We are so busy with life that it may seem morbid to think about death. But preparing a living will does not mean we must dwell on these darker issue. A few moments now may save our families considerable heartache later as they know exactly where we stand on right-to-die and quality of life.

This gift of knowledge is one legacy of Nancy Cruzan. A young woman now nearing death has much to teach us of the mystery of life and death.