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March 18, 2020 Beyond The Dash

How to Have the 'Death Talk' With Your Family

8 steps for starting a dialogue about death, dying, pre-planning, health and other end-of-life matters

How to Have the 'Death Talk' With Your Family
Talking with the whole family about your plans in the event of death is important. Here's how to start the conversation, and get final wishes documented for the future. (Getty Images)

Death is the inevitable end of life for every one of us. Even though we all know that life is finite, death aversion is more of a rule than an exception in the western world. A recent study showed that 80% of adults living in the United States have made no advance funeral plans. 

Time to talk

For many families, starting a conversation about death arises from immediate need. A sudden death, medical scare, or financial issue may prompt a hasty family contingency plan. But the best time to make large-scale, long-term decisions is when you are in a good state of mind, unburdened by the pressure of looming deadlines or grief.

If death isn't a regular topic of discussion in your family, you may have no clue how to proceed in the event of a death. A 'death talk' is an opportunity to discuss wishes for end-of-life care, legal matters, guardianship arrangements, finances, and desired funeral plans. 

Financial constraints, indecision and difficulty opening up a death dialogue all contribute to an overall lack of funeral foresight, but there are steps you can take to make this important conversation easier. And once the difficult conversation is over, it's unlikely you'll need to revisit it again.  

8 ways to start a productive conversation about death

Starting a conversation about death is difficult for many families. Most people have sad or traumatic memories associated with death, and the 

1. Have a plan

"Since dad's fall in October, I've been thinking we should take some time to figure out our plans for the future. If something were to happen to any of us, it'd be good to have a plan in place."

Open communication about end-of-life plans is necessary, but you should know the purpose of the conversation before beginning. Do you have a specific request that your next of kin should know about, like a preferred burial location? Are your parents reaching the age to start considering end-of-life arrangements? Is it a topic of discussion you simply want to be on the same page about? 

Any reason is a good enough reason to prompt a death talk, but knowing exactly what the purpose is will help you navigate with greater ease. 

2. Consider the timing

"Are you free tonight? I'd like to talk about some long-term future plans, if you can find the time."

The circumstances around a sensitive discussion can make or break a conversation about death. While the substance of your discussion is most important, consider the timing and delivery of your message, including the way you introduce the topic. 

Don't ambush a family member with questions about their end-of-life wishes, or your own. Choose a time that is likely to be uninterrupted. If the conversation is likely to be emotional or contentious, don't try to have this talk right before another planned event. Leaving space around difficult conversations gives everyone a chance to absorb and process the information that was shared. 

3. Create a safe atmosphere

"Why don't we meet at your place or mine any night this week? I'll have dinner ready, and cookies for dessert."

Talking about death is natural and easy for some people. For others, confronting mortality can provoke existential dread, sorrow and panic. If you believe the death talk may be disturbing for your loved ones, try to create a space that feels safest for everyone who will be present. 

That might mean having this conversation at home, with plenty of advance notice, or allowing your loved one to take the lead. You may not be able to make the topic of death safe for someone with death anxiety, but there are ways to set the conversation up for success. 

This is particularly relevant if this conversation involves an elderly person, or a person with health concerns. It's worth taking the time to ensure the other party's physical and emotional comfort to ensure the most productive conversation possible. 

4. Set and respect boundaries

"Each of us will have a chance to discuss what we want and need, and together we'll figure out the best way to accommodate what we can."

Let your reason for calling a family meeting be known upfront. Establish your hopes for the conversation. Reiterate that your intention is to have a practical conversation, not to stir up emotions. Allow space for everyone to speak their minds, without dominating the conversation. Make your preferences known, but be willing to compromise. The whole family can be included in a conversation about post-death planning. Depending on age and maturity, this planning may involve children as well. (Getty Images)

5. Consider all possible scenarios

"We have a plan for mom's care if we lose dad, and dad's care if we lose mom, but what if something happens to me? Let's make a plan."

While we can estimate lifespan based on factors like age and health, tomorrow is never guaranteed. Your plan should involve all possible scenarios. Well-rounded planning may also help set everyone at greater ease.

For example, if you are convening to discuss end-of-life plans for your elderly parents, don't forget to make a plan for their care in the event of your death. 

Consider the following end-of-life options:

  • Guardianship and caretaking of surviving dependents. 

  • Plans for creating a living will and last will and testament.

  • Designating an executor.

  • Final disposition (Eg. burial or cremation).

  • Funeral home or cemetery preference, if any.

  • Budget, and instructions for accessing funeral funds.

  • Nature of ceremony: traditional funeral, celebration of life, a party? 

  • Any special requests for music, eulogists or photos at your memorial.

  • Instructions for selecting a casket or urn, if applicable. 

  • Wishes for a permanent memorial, like a memorial bench or scholarship.

  • Obituary tone and story. 

  • General values surrounding death (i.e. religious, eco-friendly)

6. Document decisions

"I also want a bagpiper to play traditional Scottish songs. Write that down."

Write down the main points of discussion. Even expectations that are understood and accepted by everyone should be written down. These directions will form the plan for your survivors after you are gone. To remove all doubt and uncertainty from those who will be grieving your death, be specific, decisive and clear. 

For example, most Catholic families will opt for a burial. It's still worth documenting, even if the whole family is onboard.

Once your decisions are documented, formalize these wishes in a legal will with a lawyer or written directive with a funeral director. (Getty Images)

7. Prioritize wishes

"I want a party vibe at my celebration of life. Nothing too stuffy. It's okay if you can't get everyone to dance, but there needs to be a DJ."

Some end-of-life wishes will be non-negotiable, while others might fall into the 'nice to have' category. Others may not be feasible with the budget that is available. Again, consider your survivors' state of mind before making a non-negotiable request. Pre-planning is only a gift to your loved ones if they can reasonably execute your plans; otherwise, it may become more of a guilt trip

Above all, the plan should be realistic. If your documentation shows that you want a solid gold casket housed in a famous historic mausoleum, make sure the funds to enact these wishes will be available. Otherwise, put the more luxurious plans as a 'nice to have' and move on with realistic plans. 

8. Put your plans in motion

Time to put your plans into action. Start working on your will, and make sure it is legal by consulting with a lawyer. Save enough money to foot the final bill. Arrange your funeral finances so that they'll be accessible to those planning your funeral. Safely store your funeral plan and ensure it is available to your family. If it makes sense for you, consult with a funeral director to pre-plan and prepay for services. You might even pre-write your own obituary, if you want to.

The path ahead

Revisit your plan at intervals to ensure it continues to reflect your needs and wishes as life goes on. For some, this is a one-time conversation. For others, it's an ongoing dialogue that will change and grow. We hope this 8-step guide helps you start the end-of-life conversation, and makes the process of planning easier for you and your family. 

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