How to Start Hard Conversations About Death, Grief, Terminal Illness & End-of-Life Planning

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Opening up and talking to your loved ones about end-of-life issues such as getting older and reaching the end of one’s life can be challenging and intimidating. These difficult but often necessary conversations can be hard to start. They take emotional courage and a keen sense of knowing when the time's right to begin healthy communication with aging parents or other loved ones facing the end of life. 

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Communication is key to having deep, meaningful conversations about death and dying regardless of who you have them with. While there's no perfect time to talk about death, the sooner you start the dialogue, the more comfortable you'll get talking about taking on major life decisions. Every exchange builds upon the previous, laying a foundation for knowing what to do about the many aspects that make up end-of-life planning and considerations. 

What to Keep in Mind Before Starting a Hard Conversation

Initiating these end-of-life planning conversations begins well before an aging or terminally ill loved one faces a mental and cognitive decline that prevents them from making informed decisions about different aspects of their life. You'll want to plan to discuss your loved one's healthcare, finances, opinions on major end-of-life decisions, and the artificial prolongment of life. Additionally, include discussions about:

  • Where they'd want to live if they could no longer be independent
  •  What they'd like to happen with their house and personal possessions
  • Any loose ends they need to tie up
  • Spirituality and thoughts concerning the end of life, cremation, and burial
  • The legacy they'd like to leave behind and how to best support it

This organization and implementation time is only the preliminary stage of end-of-life planning. Your loved one doesn't need to make any final decisions right at that moment. Keep in mind that not everyone's comfortable facing their mortality and openly talking about how they plan on dying.

You'll want to take things slow initially without overwhelming them or sending them in a downward spiral of depression. Facing one's death is an emotionally taxing and often traumatizing experience. The more patience, compassion, and understanding you offer, the better things will go for everyone. 

How to Prepare Yourself for Hard Conversations

There's not any way to fully prepare yourself for having some of life's most difficult conversations with a loved one who's facing death. The practices that help you have these discussions include planning ahead and preparing for adverse outcomes so they don't take you by surprise. While preparation by itself isn't a guarantee that things will go smoothly, it does help you maintain confidence as you broach a challenging situation.

Some setbacks to having hard conversations include not knowing what to say when your loved one is dying or how their emotional reactions will impact you. Sometimes even the most prepared individuals do not know what to say when facing their dying loved one or when talking about an already painful situation.

The following are some ways to help you open up the dialogue to start creating meaningful conversations to aid you in making impactful decisions concerning your loved one. 

How to Talk About Death and Mortality

Talking about death and mortality doesn’t have to be challenging or uncomfortable. These conversations often start with small talk concerning individual views and opinions that lead to the bigger philosophical and spiritual questions that remain largely unanswered. 

Most individuals know that their time on earth is limited, and life doesn’t last forever. Whether one chooses to ignore their mortality or embrace life for whatever time they have here on earth, the fact that everyone eventually dies is something we all must come to terms with. This realization amounts to an overwhelming sense of loss in some people, while death is simply a part of life for others. 

The following are some ways of introducing these conversations with less resistance from your loved ones:

Begin with small talk

Every conversation about death and mortality should begin and end with a specific goal in mind. Although you can’t predict how a conversation will end, you can undoubtedly guide how you purposefully enter it.

Introducing death and dying in small, digestible chunks can make the conversation more palatable and less likely to turn your loved one away from it. Every little step builds progress toward answering or resolving any unanswered questions you may have concerning your loved one’s end-of-life wants and needs.

Consider their needs

Everyone has specific wants and needs near the end of their lives, and these things don’t always tie into end-of-life planning, burial, and funeral arrangements. Talk to your loved ones on a more intimate level about the things that matter most to them.

You might be surprised to find that the things holding the most meaning for your loved ones are different from what you envisioned. Give them the time, space, and opportunity to formulate their thoughts and words without interjecting your ideas first.

Have open communication

Try not to cram everything into one conversation. When discussing your loved one's needs, allow for an open-ended dialogue that continues into more than one sitting. Making tough decisions can be emotionally taxing and can place individuals on the defensive, causing them to shut down.

Break things down into small, manageable pieces, and let your loved ones know when you'll pick back up on the conversation so that they're not surprised. Knowing ahead of time what to expect can help them better prepare for your discussions so that their input becomes more meaningful.

Ask pointed questions

Talking about aging, declining health concerns, death, and dying can help avoid unintended consequences in planning for your loved one’s final days. You can help them achieve contentment and find closure by creating a trusted space for them to have these conversations. Consider your loved one’s vulnerability and their need for transparency and honesty. 

How to Talk About Grief With Loved Ones

Opening up about life’s significant losses and their impacts on different aspects of an individual’s life can be intimidating for many people. Everyone reacts to grief and loss differently, and it rarely looks the same from one individual to another.

Your loved ones faced with loss-related grief can process their feelings and emotions in ways you may never have considered. How you approach the conversation with one person will likely look very different from how you talk to others, depending on your relationship with them and the closeness of your bond. The following ideas can help you get the conversation started. 

How to Talk About Terminal Illness With Loved Ones

It’s painful to see your loved one approaching the end of their life when you’re both conscious of your limited time together. Each of you can face personal struggles as you come to terms with their declining health and mental capacity.

Seeing your loved one in pain and getting weaker with each passing day is heart wrenching. You may feel helpless in your inability to soothe their pain, and they can face the loss of their privacy, autonomy, and freedom. Talking about terminal illness and the end of life starts with the following:

Be honest about their circumstances 

Establishing and maintaining trust in communication is vital to every intimate connection you make with your loved ones facing the end of life. Most terminally ill individuals know and understand that their days are limited, whether they’re ready to talk about it openly or not.

Many people start to disconnect from their lives and loved ones well before discussing what comes next. Whatever you do, start with the truth and avoid giving false hope when talking about your loved one’s condition. Keep in mind that this type of diagnosis can be an excruciating realization for many dying individuals. 

Discuss timelines

As painful as it may seem to talk about the end of life with someone you love and aren’t ready to let go of, talking about any timelines or expectations their doctors advised of is essential to coming to terms with death. Your loved one has a right to know what to expect so that they can decide which remaining unresolved things in their life are most important to address before they die.

Giving someone you love a real opportunity to take care of things they withheld doing leads to a more peaceful death experience and allows them to shape their final legacy. It also creates an opportunity for survivors to heal from their loss with fewer feelings of regret. 

Listen more than you talk

When you allow your loved ones to express what they're feeling and going through openly, it empowers them to control their death's narrative. By encouraging them to discuss their thoughts and feelings as they approach the end, they give a voice to the things that matter most to them without feelings of shame or reproach.

Practice controlling your tone of voice when speaking and your emotional responses when hearing unexpected or painful things as they recount what's most important to them. Remind yourself that this is your loved one's death journey, and they have a right to think and feel whatever they want. Try to remove any expectations from the conversation and remain nonjudgmental.

How to Talk About End-of-Life Planning With Loved Ones

When approaching the talk about end-of-life planning with your loved ones, think more along the lines of having conversations on aging instead of about death and dying. The way you frame your dialogue can impact how your loved ones accept and react to your attempts to get these discussions going. One way of approaching this sensitive topic is to tell your loved one what you’re thinking and what got you started thinking about planning for when you die. 

Use examples of friends and relatives you both know about who had any significant issues or struggles due to poor or incomplete planning. Talk about the consequences and how you think they could have been avoided or improved upon. Then ask the tough questions.

  • Have they considered their end-of-life planning? If so, do they mind sharing with you their thoughts and ideas?
  • Do they have a properly formatted and endorsed written will, living will, life, and burial insurance plans? If so, who is their representative, and do they know where to locate the paperwork when the time comes?
  • Do they need help getting in contact with an attorney or other professional who can advise them further in private?

Frequently Asked Questions: Having Tough Conversations

Most people aren’t comfortable talking about death and dying, especially when planning their demise. Because of this hesitation, having hard conversations can get complicated at times.

Whenever your loved one resists engaging in important decisions concerning matters affecting their end-of-life planning, it can leave you feeling frustrated and without much hope. Here are some FAQs that may help you get through common setbacks.

What if your loved ones are resistant to having hard conversations?

Talking about death and dying can be challenging for many people for several reasons. Often people hesitate to have these conversations because they’re superstitious when it comes to death planning, or they may feel exposed and vulnerable. The more you push them to open up, the more withdrawn and defensive they may seem to get. To break through this resistance, you’ll need to be patient and empathetic.

What if the conversations end poorly?

Death talks tend to create conflict no matter how carefully you choose your words. These difficult conversations won’t always go overly smoothly. Your loved one may snap at you, get angry, or grow uncomfortable with talking about their end of life. These reactions are natural and don’t necessarily reflect how they feel about you. If the conversation goes south, take a break and reconvene later.  

What are the best or worst times to have difficult conversations?

The best time to have hard conversations with a loved one is before you need to. Start planting the seed for these talks ahead of time. Try to slowly introduce the need to get some things out in the open so that you both know what to expect when the time comes.

The worst time to have a difficult conversation is in the middle of a crisis when things need deciding on right then and there. Hasty decision-making can end with one or both of you feeling pressured, shameful, or regretful. Open up the conversations when it makes sense, and try to ease into them as a natural extension of what's going on in your daily lives. 

The Importance of Timing in Death Talks

Talking about end-of-life with a loved one is one of life’s most hard conversations to have. No one can ever fully prepare for a loved one’s death. We hate the idea of losing someone we love, yet we know that no one lives forever. The importance of having deep and meaningful end-of-life conversations can’t be overstated. Proper planning can save you and your loved ones lots of heartaches, money, and regret.

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