Having End of Life Conversations with Parents, Spouses, or Your Own Kids

Did you know that 92% of Americans say it’s important to discuss their wishes for end of life care, but only 32% have actually done it?1

After all, it’s not always the easiest subject to bring up. But it actually can help things feel less scary by taking a lot of questions and unknowns out of the equation. Maybe you’re talking to your parents about their plans should they face a medical emergency as they get older. Or your spouse about how you would support each other, if something were to happen to the other one. Or even your kids, to make sure they know your wishes as you get older.

The people we trust with these kinds of important conversations around how we want to live out our lives have an important role to play. We can honor them by giving them enough information to know they’re making the right choices, if they have to.

So how do we even bring the topic up? Well, only you know what’s right for you. But no matter who you’re talking to about life and death, having a plan is key to starting the conversation.

Find What Matters Most in Life—and Death

Before any conversations happen, everyone should discover what matters the most to them. While this is really important for the person deciding how they would want to live out their final days, it’s also important for those of us who will be there to support them.

After all, we want to make sure those we love have everything exactly as they would want it. But we may also have concerns about how to best complete their wishes. For example, do you know what you would do if the person you loved couldn’t make decisions for themselves and needed you to handle things for them? How would that responsibility make you feel? And do you feel comfortable honoring their last wishes? How would you feel if someone had to make a decision for you?

This conversation is a path of discovery. And sometimes people realize—once they stop to really think about dying—they actually have very specific ideas about how they’d like the end of their life to look.

It’s okay to take some time and talk back and forth. Ultimately, the goal is to arrive at a simple statement: “What matters to me most is [blank].”

This is what The Conversation Project recommends to do first—before even setting a date to talk. They’re an organization dedicated to helping people have conversations around how they want to manage the end of their lives.

They believe the conversations should start with us deciding what matters to us personally, and those conversations should happen while we’re sitting with our loved ones around a kitchen table, rather than around a hospital bed.

They advocate for this “what-matters-to-me statement” because it’s the groundwork to having a successful conversation. Once you know what you want, you have a direction to drive the conversation. They’ve even created a workbook to get started.

Make a Plan for “The Talk”

To start things off, think about what questions need to be asked, and how everyone might respond to the answers.

There are a few tips the Conversation Project has:

  • Imagine the conversation in your mind
  • Remember that you don’t have to talk about everything at once.
  • Be patient. Some people need more time to become okay with discussing the topic.
  • Nothing you say is permanent. You can change your mind as your circumstances change.
  • It’s okay to disagree. The important thing is to keep the conversation going. Everyone will have their own plans, and it’s okay for those to look different. After all, it’s a conversation, not a command.

It’s also a good idea to plan a time to talk when everyone is calm, relaxed, and happy to talk. You may find the holidays the perfect time when everyone is together, enjoying each other’s company. But the holidays can also be a hectic time where tension is high. Talk to your siblings, parents, or other family to find out when the best time for everyone to talk would be.

And remember, forcing a conversation isn’t a good place to start from. If the time isn’t right, it’s okay to wait. You may need several conversations around the subject, and that’s okay! Everyone moves at their own pace.

Make the Necessary Legal Decisions

Once you’ve talked through your wishes, it may be the right time to look into a legal document called an advanced directive. Advanced directives are things like a living will, and power of attorney. The AARP has compiled a list so you can find the legal forms unique to your state.

When you have a living will, a person can set up things like Do Not Resuscitate orders (DNRs) to ensure they won’t receive CPR if their breathing or heartbeat stops. A person can also stipulate whether or not they want their organs to go to help someone else after they die. It’s even a way to direct the kinds of treatments they would (or wouldn’t) want. This is important for things like life support and care decisions during a vegetative state.

By setting up power of attorney, a person is named as a proxy—they’ll make medical decisions on the person’s behalf if they aren’t able to. While a living will is a great thing to have, naming a power of attorney can be beneficial if something that isn’t outlined in the living will comes up. This should be someone trusted to make decisions that adhere to the person’s wishes. If there are any disagreements about care, the power of attorney will make those decisions on their behalf.

If you’re talking to your parents, you may want to ask if they have a living will, or if they’ve given any thought to who would have power of attorney if they couldn’t make decisions for themselves. And think about it yourself, too. Do you have a spouse or child who you would trust with those decisions? That’s another great reason to have these conversations as soon as possible. That way, they’ll know what to do if they have to.

Starting the Conversation is Important

When you’re having conversations about the end of your life, it can be tough to know where to start. But by planning it out ahead of time, you’ll be able to be in control of where the conversation goes. You’re making it easy for your loved ones to know they are making the right decision. That piece of mind will be great motivation to start the conversation—even if it’s uncomfortable.

If you need help planning your finances as you look toward what the future holds, click here to speak with an agent.  While your plans are your own, our agents can help you navigate the complicated financial aspects that come along with your planning, so you can focus on the conversations that really matter—the ones with your loved ones.