How to talk end-of-life wishes with your parents

Questions to ask your parents before they die

You probably remember your parents sitting you down for an awkward “birds and bees” conversation when you were a kid. When you were squirming your way through that rite of passage you never could have imagined that, years down the road, it would be your turn to initiate a similarly delicate, but necessary, subject with your parents.

Now, maybe you’re in your 30s or 40s, and you’re aware that your parents are getting older. It might be time to have an adult-to-adult conversation about something that will affect the whole family: your parents’ end-of-life-wishes.

Unlike that sex talk during your adolescence, this one doesn’t have to make you squirm. Having a thoughtful end-of-life discussion with your parents is an opportunity to reach a new level of caring and understanding.

Having an end-of-life discussion with your parents

Talking to your parents about the end of their lives can be scary. No matter how old we are, they’re still our parents. My own mom was facing a double lung transplant four years ago, and my sister and I didn’t do a very good job of having an end-of-life conversation with her. In the moment, it seemed too hard, too gloomy, and just plain awkward. Thankfully, she made it through the surgery and long recovery process and is doing very well today.

After the crisis passed, we realized that we would have faced some hard decisions if things had gone differently. We have since had that talk.

The best way to have an important conversation like this one is, as with so many tasks in life, to be prepared.

Here, tips for not only the logistics of having “the” conversation but also what to say when the time actually comes.

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#1 Give a heads-up

While everyone loves surprises, not everyone would appreciate getting this topic sprung on them. In other words, inviting the folks over for Sunday dinner and then laying out an outline for their death as an unexpected appetizer may not be a great way to get communication started. Instead, let your parents know ahead of time that you would like to talk to them about this particular topic.

Need some help with the introduction? Try this (you can even email or text if that is easier):

Hey Mom and Dad, a friend of mine just learned her mom has terminal cancer and not long to live. It really shook me up and made me appreciate that you guys are healthy and we still have a long time with you. My friend is at her wit’s end, trying to balance the emotional aspect of this along with figuring out what her mother would want. Watching her struggle with this, I think it would be a good idea if we had a family meeting sometime soon to talk through these kinds of things.

#2 Decide who should be in the room

Who should be at this meeting? If you have siblings, they should be present. If they don’t live nearby, be sure they know you’re planning to have the conversation, and fill them in on details afterward.

Even if you’re the oldest, the executor of their will, or the most responsible of your adult siblings, this is a talk that everybody in the family should be involved in. Neglecting to include (or at least invite) siblings is a recipe for resentment, anger, and blame-gaming.

A pre-meeting meeting is a good idea. Gather your siblings (or, if not possible, start a group thread) and figure out how you envision the conversation. Who will take the lead? How will you introduce the topic?

Draft an outline of things to talk about. That will drive the conversation and mitigate awkwardness. This conversation is one of the most personal things you can talk about, so try to make it easy on everyone.

Keep it short if possible. It might be a good idea to set a time frame before you start. Your family might need more than one meeting to accomplish everything and that’s okay.

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#3 What to expect

Setting the tone for the meeting will go a long way toward having an effective conversation. Make it clear that the goal is to ensure your parents’ wishes are known and respected.

It is also important to acknowledge that, with the inevitability of death, you are taking proactive steps to aid in the grieving process. Losing a parent is an emotional event unlike any other and being able to have the business aspect taken care of ahead of time will allow your family to focus on each other and working through their grief.

Be prepared for resistance, but maybe from a source you didn’t expect. While some parents may be a little hesitant to have this conversation (after all, it is their mortality you are talking about), adult children can also have a tough time getting this task started. It’s a very difficult thing to think about a parent dying, no matter what the child’s age.

When is the best time to have this discussion? The sooner the better is a good baseline. You can always update later if your parents change their minds about a particular aspect.

#4 Questions to ask your parents

Now, for the heavy lifting. What should you talk about? The list is fairly long, ranging from finances to do-not-resuscitate decisions to a final resting place. Use this guide to frame your discussion outline.

  • Power of attorney: Is there a power of attorney in place? This document will allow the named individual to make decisions and enter into transactions on behalf of a parent should the need arise. Execution and content requirements vary state by state so check with your attorney to make sure you get the paperwork right.
  • Healthcare power of attorney: While the standard power of attorney has broad-ranging discretion, you might want to consider a separate document to allow someone to step in to make healthcare-related decisions.
  • Do not resuscitate (DNR): This is another tough topic but so important to discuss before it is needed. Let your parents know that you will respect their wishes but need to know ahead of time what their preference is. Make sure all siblings are fully aware of your parents’ wishes when it comes to this decision.
  • Hospice: Talk to your parents about their feelings about hospice. It may be helpful to ask a hospice provider for some informational brochures about what hospice is and how it works. This is not a decision your parents need to make at this meeting or on the spot, but get the conversation started.
  • Funeral plans: Some people already have made their funeral arrangements but many do not. Even if your parents do not want to prepay or arrange their own funeral and/or resting place, have a discussion about what they want. Your local funeral home should be able to provide a checklist of decision points that can be helpful.

Financial issues are another aspect of end-of-life planning. Consider these topics:

#5 Get End-of-life paperwork in writing

The best tip for having an end-of-life conversation with your parents is to get it in writing. While life insurance policies, wills, power of attorney documents and the like are already in writing, don’t neglect the other decision points that your parents come to during your talk.

It may sound cold, but writing a list of your parents’ wishes after the meeting and having them review and confirm the contents can save a lot of heartache. When the time comes, the last thing you want to do is get into an argument over what was said and what your parents’ wishes were.

End your end-of-life talk on a high note

Make no mistake, an end-of-life planning meeting with your parents is not exactly a fun time. It can be sad, awkward, and maybe even tense. Make it the best that it can be by planning ahead, keeping it on track, and ending on a high note. Let your parents know that you appreciate them having this talk with you. This kind of conversation is doable. With the right tools and a plan in place, you can have the conversation that will respect your parents’ wishes and make things a bit easier for your family when faced with their loss.

After getting through the nitty-gritty, lighten things up. Treat the folks to dinner, a round of mini-golf, or a family game night. A discussion like this will reinforce how special life is and you’ll be in the mood to enjoy some well-deserved special time with your family.

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Rachel Parisi is a freelance writer and attorney. She focuses her writing on insurance, financial services, and employee benefits. In her previous life, she served in the United States Air Force as a missile combat crew commander (think ‘Wargames’).

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. Haven Life Insurance Agency does not provide tax or legal advice. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC15DTC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. Not all riders are available in all states. Our Agency license number in California is 0K71922 and in Arkansas, 100139527.

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