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Having “The Conversation” About End-of-Life Matters

April 21, 2015, 01:32 AM


Coming to terms with the realities of nearing and eventual death is difficult for everyone involved. Whether it’s an elderly parent in poor health or a terminally ill family member, having “the conversation” about end-of-life affairs is an important step to making the transition easier for everyone. Discussing important end-of-life issues like medical care and advance directives, personal finance, living wills, estate planning, and funeral and burial wishes not only make the transition easier, but can also bring you closer to your parent as you openly and honestly talk about these important matters.

How to Get Started

Whether your parent is ill or simply aging, starting a conversation about end-of-life wishes can be equally difficult. Before you approach your parent to discuss matters, do your research and familiarize yourself with the legal, financial, and funereal processes involved in death so you can ask the right questions. Get acquainted with your state’s advanced directive laws so you can offer your parent options for their medical care. Remember that this is a process and not every issue needs to be covered in one sitting. If you have siblings, decide who will be part of the conversation and plan for a time to speak with your parent in a place where s/he will be comfortable, with no distractions. Additionally, avoid springing the topic on your parent out of the blue. Keep in mind that while the prospect of losing your parent is devastating, it can be equally if not more difficult for your parent as well, and it’s important to remain patient and calm and approach these conversations from a place of compassion.

Image Source (CC BY 2.0) by ken_mayer via flickr

You know your parents best, so you should approach these topics in a manner to which they will respond best and most openly, whether it’s through humor, nostalgia, or pragmatism. Break the ice and get the conversation going by referring to a deceased or terminally ill friend or family member, i.e. “I was thinking about so-and-so and it made me realize that we’ve never discussed how you’d want me to handle your medical care.” You can also get started by asking for your parents input in handling your own end-of-life affairs and asking about their own. Another way to approach the subject is to first express that you love and care for your parent deeply, and that you want to ensure his or her wishes are respected and carried out. If it is difficult for you to verbalize these sentiments, write your parent a letter expressing your emotions.

Keep the Conversation Going

It’s perfectly normal for feelings and tensions to run high during these emotionally charged conversations. Remember that while it’s easy to get swept up in emotion while discussing end-of-life matters, getting firm, well thought-through answers and reaching clear conclusions is the ultimate goal to avoid confusion and headaches after your parent is no longer able to communicate their wishes. While all of their desires will be legally binding when the paperwork is processed, it’s important not to pressure your parent into any decisions. Reassure them that you will support and love them no matter they ultimately decide, and that they are perfectly within their rights to change their minds if they so choose. Remember that you are there to listen; keep judgments to yourself and remember that this conversation is just that – a conversation about your parent’s care with their best intentions in mind – not a debate or a contest.

If you’re finding it difficult or overwhelming to come to terms with having “the talk,” turn to resources like The Conversation Project to help get started and keep going. Don’t wait until it’s too late to have a meaningful discussion!

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