They say you’re not supposed to talk about religion and politics, at least not with your family—but there’s one thing people like talking about even less: Death. The idea of sitting down with your mom and dad and discussing end-of-life issues likely isn’t your idea of fun but consider the alternative. The alternative is that one day, mom or dad passes away, and you are left totally unprepared. You want to plan and orchestrate a meaningful end-of-life event for your parent—a memorial service or a life celebration that will be just what mom or dad would have wanted. There’s just one problem: You have no idea what mom or dad would have wanted because you never had that talk with them. That’s not a scenario anyone wants to be in, which is why we encourage sons and daughters to sit down with their parents sooner rather than later. A single conversation can make a world of difference.
Facts About Having the Talk
The Conversation Project shares some facts that make it clear just how neglected the talk really is:
90 percent of people say that it is important to talk about end-of-life issues with family—but just over 25 percent actually do it. 60 percent of people say it matters to them that their family members not be overwhelmed by difficult decisions, yet 56 percent of people never discuss their wishes.
Roughly four out of five people say it is important to put their end-of-life wishes in writing, yet only one out of five has done so. The disparity here is striking: Most of us agree that end-of-life discussions are important, but when it comes to actually have those conversations, we’re a timid bunch! So how do you turn your intentions into actions? How do you prepare to have the talk with mom and dad—and then follow through with it?
Tips for Having the Talk
The setting matters. Don’t casually strike up this conversation at a noisy restaurant, or in the middle of an otherwise pleasant family get-together. Select a time and a place where people are comfortable and not distracted. A private setting is usually ideal. Don’t stress. With that said, you can let the conversation come naturally. You don’t have to wring your hands for days or weeks thinking about the big moment; if you find yourself in a place where it feels natural or organic to talk about end-of-life issues—or if mom or dad brings it up—then go for it. Ask for permission. The end-of-life discussion is all about respect—so make sure you exhibit respect from the get-go. Ask permission to have the conversation. Explain that it is important to you to know what your parents’ wishes are, and ask if you can talk about it now. Remember your intentions. You started this conversation out of love for your parent(s). Try to remember that throughout the conversation; remain warm and respectful, never impatient. It may be hard for mom and dad to discuss these things, so let them go at their own pace. Nod your agreement or hold hands if you feel it would make the process easier. Ask the right questions. Come to the conversation knowing what questions you need to ask. We have prepared a cheat sheet for you, available at the end of this document. Listen well. Don’t start an argument or a debate, and don’t act indifferent about the conversation. Make it clear that what matters to your loved one matters to you. Listen for wants and needs and verbally acknowledge that you understand and affirm the choices your loved one has made—even if you do not happen to agree with them. Get to know your loved one. A lot of end-of-life decisions come down to the personality of the individual in question—likes, dislikes, beliefs, values. You may think you know the person quite well, but use this conversation as a chance to know them better. Ask open-ended questions. Don’t be pushy. As you and your loved one talk about their values and their life story, an issue or question may arise that the person does not wish to talk about. Be respectful of that and willing to just move on. Ask about legacy. Sometimes the best questions are the simplest: In order to remember your loved one well, try asking how they wish to be remembered. Take notes. If you feel like you won’t be able to remember important details, don’t be hesitant to jot down a few notes.
Having the Talk: A Cheat Sheet
Having a meaningful end-of-life discussion all comes down to asking the right questions. Here are some important questions that you can use to guide your conversation:
Do you have a will that outlines any funeral/memorial wishes? Do you have a pre-paid funeral plan?
What do you want your funeral to mean?
What parts of your life are you proudest of? What has been most important to you?
What do you believe happens after death?
What are some of your earliest memories? Some of your fondest memories?
How do you hope people will remember you? What do you hope will be your legacy?
Do you want the service to be religious in nature? If so, describe the religious or spiritual components that you wish to have in place.
Is your wish to be buried or cremated?
Would you like there to be an open-casket viewing?
Where would you like the memorial service to be?
Describe your ideal service. What are your wishes in terms of music? Food or refreshment? Do you prefer an occasion that is formal? Somber? Celebratory?
Are there specific items or heirlooms you would like to have incorporated into the memorial service?
Having this talk may seem like an awkward or an uncomfortable thing at first—but in the end, you’ll be glad you initiated it. Mom and Dad will be, too: Having end-of-life conversations provides peace of mind for everyone. It is also an invaluable way to express your love and respect. Use these tips to help you have the talk with your loved one sooner rather than later.