How do you talk to your loved ones about what you’d like to happen after your death — or ask what they’d like to happen after theirs? This conversation isn’t easy to broach; end-of-life issues are still a taboo subject in our culture. Discussing wills, estate planning, and health care wishes often makes people worry that you’re dying or causes them to confront their own mortality before they’re ready
So, you tend to leave your wishes unspoken until it’s too late.
Baby Boomers are in the unenviable position of tending to the affairs of aging parents and trying to decide how to handle your own estates and discuss the issues with your adult children. As with all the taboos of our culture — sex, drugs and money — talking about death, dying, and end-of-life wishes is growing more and more common. We’re beginning to understand the importance of having a much earlier and more candid conversation with our children than our parents had with us.
But how do you do that? How do you bring up these topics?
The simple answer, as with addressing any taboo, is that the conversation is not easy to start. But it is very simple. All you have to do is start talking.
Here are a few basic tips to help you break the ice:
1. Remember why you’re doing this. Understand the importance of this topic, and the consequences of leaving your wishes untold. Broaching a conversation about money, death, or health care with your loved ones may seem awkward now. But consider the strife you’ll save them in the long run by clearly stating your wishes and learning theirs while you can reflect and ask questions over time.
2. Consider starting the conversation with less controversial or sensitive topics. Use estate planning as an entry into a deeper conversation. You may find it easier to break into a conversation about tangible objects like money and heirlooms, and you can ease into talk of less tangible ideas like your quality of life and highly emotional issues like end-of-life health care.
3. Frame the conversation as a quality of life talk, rather than an after-death talk. For example, rather than diving in with a questions like, “What do you want us to do with the house after you die?” ask your parents, “What do you consider important to your quality of life?” This can help you ease into asking, “So, if you can no longer have that quality of life, what would you like us to do for you?” Once you have these emotional answers, you can use them to guide more pragmatic actions, like preparing a will, signing physician orders, and creating health care proxies.
4. Approach your children while they’re young. Just as with your parents, ask your adult children about their definition of a quality life and share yours. Talk to them while they’re in high school, or in their twenties or thirties — while you’re still young. In this way, you’re talking about life with young people, rather than asking them to eventually talk about dying with their aging parents. This can help you avoid the common reaction in children of fearing you’re ill when you suddenly start discussing death.
5. Know (really know) that by talking about your plans for the end-of-life and after your death, you’re not going to make it happen! That seems silly when you say it out loud; we all know this intellectually. But your instinct to shy away from this conversation often stems from a belief (or hope) that death and loss simply won’t happen to you. Acknowledging your own mortality and that of your loved ones makes it seem far more certain and near.
Understand that by starting this conversation with your loved ones, you’re not adding a nail to the proverbial coffin. You are actually helping to ensure that everyone around you will enjoy quality in not only the end of life, but also throughout life because of an understanding of what’s important to them and to those around them.
Here are a few more resources:
- Ellen Goodman knew the importance and difficulty of broaching the end-of-life conversation, so she launched an entire organization to support it. The Conversation Project offers resources and tips to help you get started, like a blatant prompt on their homepage, and their Conversation Starter Kit.
- Start the Conversation offers similar resources, though more focused on preparing for the death of a loved one.
- Death Cafe has created a branded event that brings strangers together around the world solely to talk about life and mortality in a comfortable and safe space.
- Psychotherapist Margie Jenkins wrote You Only Die Once and created the accompanying My Personal Planner to guide you through preparing for a “bodacious” life and end of life and talking with those around you about it.
- Coda Alliance created the Go Wish card game to help you think about what’s important to you in a light and entertaining way.
Resources like these are becoming more common to help guide us through this difficult subject, because we’re learning how important it is to ensure the right people know your end-of-life wishes. Still, despite any resources or guides, it comes down to simply starting the conversation.
Have you had this conversation with your family? Do you have any tips to add?