How to Talk to Your Family About Your End-of-Life Wishes: 9 Steps

Updated

Planning for the end-of-life is not usually on anyone’s top lists of priorities. Most of the time it doesn’t make the list at all. Attempting to talk about death and dying at the dinner table can be a truly cringe-worthy event. It’s enough to make most people skip a meal and hightail it out of the room.

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That being said, talking to your family about your own end-of-life wishes doesn’t have to be this awkward and forced conversation. Here are a few ways for you to not only bring up the subject but also get your loved ones talking about it in an open and frank manner.

Step 1: Have Your Plan in Hand

One way to get the conversation going with your parents, for example, is to show up early one morning with your plan in hand. It’s always a great time to have this conversation before the day’s distractions begin, or later in the evening when everyone’s more relaxed.

Try saying the following conversation starter out loud until it feels natural:

“Hey, dad. I wanted to stop in for some coffee and conversation. Is that okay with you? I just got my end-of-life planning documents done, and there are some things in there I want to go over with you. Does tomorrow work for you? I’ll pick up some donuts.”

Follow-through is key once you get their permission to stop in. Treat this time as you would any other important appointment. Set a firm time and date, and don’t be late. Your loved ones will get the sense of how important this conversation is to you once they see how seriously you’re taking it. Being late can cause a shift in your loved ones’ mood for the day and ruin the opportunity to have this important conversation.

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Step 2: Take Your Laptop With You

Admittedly, this is a sneaky way to get your loved ones looking at some end-of-life planning websites and blogs. But, it does work. This is a good tactic to get your parents to open up about their own end-of-life planning needs. 

Pop in for a visit to have breakfast or lunch with them. During mealtime, gently bring up some of your concerns. If you’re uncertain of what they have in mind to do in case of an emergency or other tragedy, for example, voice your concerns and ask them direct and pointed questions. 

Here’s a great way to weave having brought your laptop into the conversation:

“Hey mom, you know, I was thinking that I’m getting up there in age. I want to get your opinion on some estate planning things that have been weighing heavily on me. Do you mind if I bring in my laptop and show you a couple of things I’ve been looking at?”

Step 3: Bring up Emergency Planning

The global pandemic has pushed emergency planning to the forefront of everyone’s minds. Though unfortunate, the news about a pandemic or another disaster may be a good time to talk about what to do in the event of an emergency or unforeseen death. 

Try bringing up an “in case of emergency” conversation by saying something like:

“I’ve been fervently cleaning my house and organizing my affairs in case of an emergency. I know it’s a difficult conversation to have, but please make sure that (insert your wishes here). I think I’m going to get this in writing so that everyone is aware of what to do. Who here wants to be my executor?”

Adding humor to the conversation eases some of the seriousness of the discussion while still getting the point across. Take this opportunity to then start talking about all the documents that you think you and your family should have in place.

Try adding something like this:

“Hey Dad, what do you think? Am I just panicking, or am I onto something here? Take a look at this website’s planning tools. Do you guys have all your paperwork in place, cause I sure don’t.” 

Step 4: Discuss the World Around You

Watching the local news each evening is enough to put anyone into panic mode. With all the grim news stories and latest statistics of what’s going on in the world, the news makes it seem that we’re all at risk of dying an early death.

Use these statistics to your advantage in getting the conversation started with other members of your family like your spouse or adult children. 

Try bringing up important topics by saying something to the effect of:

“I think that it’s time that we get at least the basic documents in place just in case we suffer an emergency. I wouldn’t even know where to begin if I had to make certain decisions. I heard about this website called Cake where you can get all your documents taken care of. Can we take a look at it together over the weekend?”

Step 5: Use Others as an Example

When you start getting older, you’ll notice more people you know who are either in the hospital, recovering, or who’ve died recently. When you’re concerned that your family doesn’t yet have an end-of-life plan in place, start the discussion by bringing up what’s happening to those around you.  For example:

“I just saw posted on Facebook that my cousin, (insert name here), is in the hospital. There’s a chance he might not make it. I’m scared that if this were to happen to one of us, we won’t know what the other would want to happen. Can we talk about it?”

Be prepared to hear any of these responses from your loved ones:

  • “Your cousin’s always posting on Facebook all the dumb things he does to risk his life. No wonder he’s in the hospital.”
  • “You’re watching too much television and falling for everything you hear on the news. Relax, you’ll be fine.”
  • “It won’t happen to us. You worry too much.”
  • “Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll take care of things if I need to.”
  • “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be dead and wouldn’t care any less what you do with me or my things. Can’t take any of it with me.”

Try formulating some clever or funny responses to statements like these. Be prepared for the pushback you might get when you attempt to have these important discussions. A key to success in almost anything is persistence. In this case, be persistent in getting the conversation started so eventually it leads to getting your plan down in writing.

Step 6: Ask Permission

Asking for your loved one’s permission to have these conversations is almost always better than springing it on them when least expected. Many people are highly sensitive when talking about death.

It’s unusual to run across someone eager to share with you their thoughts on what they expect to happen as they get closer to death. Consider asking your loved one for a “death-planning date” with you so you can talk about these things at a special time and place.

Step 7: Voice Your Concerns

Are you feeling anxious or having panic attacks wondering what’ll happen if disaster strikes? You’re not alone. Many people feel this way, especially in uncertain times such as these.

A good plan of action to help you alleviate some of your fears and anxiety is to voice your concerns to your loved ones. Start by talking to them about it, and then by taking action. 

Implementing a disaster plan is not as difficult or intimidating as it seems. There are lots of free resources online to help you get started. To make things less overwhelming for you, take the top three things on your list, and take steps toward ensuring that they’re taken care of. 

For example:

  • Concern: Becoming incapacitated. Action: Have in place a properly signed medical directive
  • Concern: Dying without a will. Action: Go online and research basic will requirements
  • Concern: Your wishes for interment. Action: Talk to your spouse or adult children about your wants, then get a preneed funeral plan in place.

Step 8: Present Options

End-of-life planning can seem overwhelming especially if you’re trying to do it all at once. You might consider piece-mealing your planning so that you don’t get overwhelmed. There are some documents you can easily download right off the internet and sign today.

On the other hand, if you’re known to procrastinate, it might do you best to get all of your planning and implementation taken care of all at once. Some options for you to consider are:

  • Using an online end-of-life planning website, like Cake, to do your planning
  • Getting recommendations for local attorneys who specialize in estate planning
  • Doing an online search of local resources available to you

Step 9: Make It a Fun Conversation

Having the “end-of-life planning” conversation doesn’t have to be full of doom and gloom. Many people dread having this talk, so it’s nothing to be overly concerned about when you come up against some resistance from your loved ones. 

You can make a game night out of it when you’re sitting at home bored in the house. 

Fun ways to talk about death might include:

  • Seeing who can name the most recent celebrity deaths (and their causes of death - unexpected vs. known illnesses)
  • Playing a game of fantasy funerals 
  • Purchasing a “Death Deck” of cards and challenging one another to answer all the questions in the least amount of time

Many of us put in great effort to start checking off our bucket lists as we get older and nearer to our death. But when it comes to planning for it, many of us fail to take the needed steps to ensure that our wishes are known to those closest to us. These types of death games make having these conversations a bit less awkward for everyone. 

Turning End-of-Life Wishes into a Reality

It may not matter to you once you’re gone what happens to your body or your material possessions. But what should be important to you while you're still alive, is the ability to retain as much control as possible over your life and medical care and treatment.

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