Tips for having the difficult end-of-life conversation with your parents

by Marie Villeza

Sometimes the hardest things to talk about with your loved ones are the most important, and when it comes to their end-of-life wishes, this certainly holds true. There are many reasons why this conversation is difficult. For one, you don’t want to think about your parents dying. Your parents may also be reticent, making it a painful process to attempt to draw out their true feelings. Difficult as it may be, it must be done. There are few things worse than not knowing your parents’ true wishes for their end of life care and what should happen after their death, and being blindsided by it all. Here are some tips to help.

Emotions can run high when you get in the moment, so like most things where this is the case, you should go into the end-of-life conversation with a plan – and some practice. Ask your friends about conversations they’ve had with their parents. What worked? What didn’t work? What were some of the things that caught them off guard? Do they have any advice? Once you figure out how you’re going to approach the conversation, practice with someone. If you need help knowing where to begin, The Conversation Project has a handy template and guide.

So hey mom, what do you want us to do if you’re dying? may not be the best way to ease into the conversation. As Daughterhood.org points out, having a “prop” story can help get the conversation started. It doesn’t even have to be a true story, but it may help if it is and your parents know the people involved. You can say something like I heard about Jane Doe and her family, and how their mom didn’t have end-of-life plans. Do you have those?

It may help to make it about you, your siblings, and the grandkids. We don’t want to have to go through that with you – it would be too painful. We need to get this figured out.

It’s a good idea to plan a time to begin the conversation that meets some criteria – first, it’s in a comfortable, non-threatening location. Next, you may want to make sure that you are not alone. If you have brothers and sisters, involve them in the process. You want to keep the participants small – the conversation can be tricky and you don’t want it to feel like some sort of ambush. But the core members of the family can help instill a sense of the gravity of the situation in your parents.

There’s more to the end-of-life conversation than simply asking what your parents want as funeral arrangements of what they want to happen if they end up on life support. There are many different aspects to the end of life process (legally and financially), and you’ll want to cover them all. You may not want to try to do it all at once, however. The conversation is actually not just the conversation. It’s a series of conversations.

In the end, talking to your parents about the end of their lives is your duty as a child. They may be hesitant to discuss it, or you may feel to awkward to broach the topic, but it has to be done. When it is done, both you and the rest of your family will feel a great sense of relief. Death is a part of life, and you must be prepared for it as you would for anything else.

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