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Conversations About Dying

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How to have them with your aging parents.

Death is inevitable. We all know it, yet most of us don’t want to face it, even think about it — let alone have a conversation about it. But not talking about it isn’t necessarily the healthiest route. We take a hard look at why having a conversation about death with your parent is beneficial and how to go about it.

When To Start

Starting a conversation about death is never easy, especially with an aging parent, but approaching the subject when everyone is healthy can make things easier. Consider broaching the subject like, “When I went to so-and-so’s funeral, it got me thinking about things. What would you want?” Or if a friend suffered legal roadblocks because her parent didn’t have a will, you could mention that.

Of course, starting a conversation when everyone’s healthy isn’t always feasible. If it’s too late for that, try softly approaching the conversation with something like, “I’m sorry you are going through this,” or “There must be so much to think about right now.”

While there isn’t a perfect or right way to start this type of conversation, and it might seem tough to begin, sometimes the anticipation is the worst part.

Ask The Right Questions

Think about what you’d like to know before the conversation begins. Consider asking questions such as “Do you have a will or a power of attorney or DNR?” Then there are the tougher conversations to be had. What funeral and burial wishes does your loved one have? What’s preferred — burial or cremation? Some people prefer to preplan their arrangements.

Another way to approach this is to use Five Wishes, a site that allows you to create an online version of a living will which you can edit and get a printed copy. It asks the necessary questions in a gentle way, and you can work through the process with you loved ones and even create your own living will, too. This can create an atmosphere for open communication, and it can take the pressure off your parent as you share your own end-of-life wishes.

Because end-of-life care can be fraught with emotion, it’s a good idea to know your parent’s wishes before the time comes to implement. If you don’t have a conversation about the specifics, at least be sure, if you are ever in a place where you need to make a decision, you know where to go for the answers.

Set Up a System

Now is also a good time to ask about bank accounts, any safety deposit boxes or username and logins that might be important. Consider creating a list together of important things to know that Mom or Dad can keep tucked away in a safe yet accessible place. Or store the information in a secure online document that you can access on the go, if needed, or share with other family members.

Think about next steps and how you can help. Sometimes it’s just a matter of arranging an appointment with an attorney to get the ball rolling on legal documents.

Be a Good Listener

It can be hard to stay quiet when a loved one talks about their own death. You might have the urge to chime in with hopeful words and change the topic to get back on a more comfortable subject, but try to give this topic its fair due. This is tough to tackle but a short conversation now about last wishes could be incredibly helpful in the future.

Take deep breaths and breathe through it. You can do this. And your loved one may be really glad you brought it up in the first place. Be honest and respectful. Keep a close eye on their body language. Don’t be afraid of emotions bubbling up or tears starting to flow. This is a tough subject. It takes courage and bravery, but remember you’re doing it for a good reason and getting it out in the open may help all parties feel better emotionally and help to ensure your loved one gets the care that they prefer at the end of their life.

If you bring the topic up but aren’t getting much of a discussion going, put it aside for a while. Sometimes it takes time to open up about tough subjects. Consider closing the topic by saying something like, “If there ever comes a time when you want to talk more about your end-of -life wishes, please do tell me. I’m here for you.”