If you’re fortunate enough to have one or both parents still alive and in your life, know that it’s your responsibility as their adult child to have a serious conversation about their end-of-life wishes. Maybe you’re in your 30s or 40s, and you’re aware that your parents are getting older. Maybe you have elderly parents. Or maybe your parents had you when they were relatively young, and are therefore closer to you in age. In any event, life is precious and fragile, and there’s no time like the present—even if these difficult conversations are, well, difficult.
Having a thoughtful end-of-life discussion with your parents is an opportunity to reach a new level of caring and understanding.
Talking to your parents about the end of their lives can be scary. No matter how old we are, they’re still our parents.
The best way to have an important discussion like this one is, as with so many tasks in life, to be prepared. Here, tips for not only the logistics of having it, but also what to say when the time actually comes:
1. Give a heads-up
It might seem obvious, but it’s worth saying: While everyone loves surprises, not everyone would appreciate having this conversation without warning. In other words, don’t invite the folks over for Sunday dinner and then spring this on them. 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. Love, [YOUR NAME (OR AFFECTIONATE FAMILY NICKNAME) HERE].”
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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 this going. 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 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.
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. The goal here is peace of mind—for you, your family and your parents.
Be prepared for resistance, but maybe from a source you didn’t expect. While some parents may be a little hesitant to discuss this (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 challenging thing to think about a parent dying, no matter what age their children are.
When is the best time to have this discussion? The sooner, the better is a good baseline. (If dementia or Alzheimer’s runs in your family, that can mean saying goodbye to someone even before they’re physically gone—and can make it difficult, if not impossible, for your parent to properly take care of end-of-life planning.) You can always update later if your parents change their minds about a particular aspect.
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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 have 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. Ask if they prefer cremation or burial. Your local funeral home should be able to provide a checklist of helpful decision points, too.
Financial issues are another aspect of end-of-life planning. Consider these topics:
- Money, period. How much do they need to live in retirement? What savings, if any, do they have in addition to Social Security? Do they expect (or need) financial help from you (and any siblings)? Do they have long-term care insurance or other plans in place for long-term care (and/or in-home care) should they need it?
- Wills and trusts: Do your parents have a will and/or trust drafted? If so, where is it located? What else might they need to do, money-wise, in terms of estate planning?
- Life insurance: Do your parents have some kind of life insurance policy? If so, which life insurance company is it with, what’s the policy number and how do you make a claim?
- Additional financial details: if you’ve been through the loss of a loved one, you know that bills and other obligations do not end at death. In order to take care of the remaining business of a loved one who has passed away, it is crucial to have a list of what bills are active, what debts are owed, and so on.
And because these are, you know, your parents, you might want to ask them about their lives, and what they learned from (and loved about) raising you. After all, when your parents die, these stories will die with them. (This topic might also offer some levity after the above questions have been answered, though it can also be a separate follow-up conversation.) Some ideas:
- Ask them for favorite stories from their childhood. Anything they’re especially proud of, or a time when they got in trouble at school.
- Favorite memories, including what they remember from iconic events during their lifetimes.
- Dreams they were able to realize; dreams they still might have a chance to fulfill.
- Regrets, they might have a few.
- Their advice (or cautionary tales) related to raising children. Maybe there are things they would have done differently, or things about you and your childhood they’re especially proud of—which is fun to know about for you, and might have practical implications if you have (or are considering having) kids of your own.
- Finally, this can be an opportunity to make clear how you feel about them—that you love them, that you understand and empathize with them, even that you forgive them if necessary (whether or not they apologize for something specific).
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.
6. 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 or enjoy 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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Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children. This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency. Opinions are his own.
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. Individuals involved in the estate planning process should work with an estate planning team, including their own personal legal or tax counsel.