Starting the Dialogue: Having the End-of-Life Conversation with a Loved One, Written by Beverly Nelson

A recent poll conducted by the Conversation Project revealed that 9 in 10 Americans are open to having a frank, end-of-life conversation with a family member. However, just 27 percent have ever done so, reflecting an innate resistence when it comes to having what can be a very awkward and uncomfortable discussion about death. People need to convey their final wishes for funeral arrangements and end-of-life dispositions but, clearly, wishing and talking are two very different things for Americans.

There’s no “right way” to have this discussion with a loved one, but there are ways to make a
relative more comfortable about airing their thoughts, concerns and desires.

Building up to it

You don’t need to give yourself a locker room speech, but there are a few tactics that can prepare you for talking with a terminally ill family member. Try writing out a conversation with yourself, including questions you’d want to ask a relative, what you imagine their responses might be, and how you would respond. It’s a good way to create an active scenario that can help you anticipate the unexpected. Or, you could take this idea a step further and have a faux conversation with a friend standing in for your relative. Practice getting comfortable with the subject matter and discussing it candidly. This is a good way to overcome the nervousness that most people feel before engaging in such a conversation.

Arrange the scene

In general, a calm, quiet scene amid comfortable surroundings is the best place to have the
conversation. If practical, consider going for a quiet walk in the woods or finding a secluded spot in your favorite coffee shop. Or, a quiet dinner at home might be the best venue. Will you want other family members to be there, too? If so, make sure whomever you ask to be involved is someone your loved one is very comfortable around and in whom he has full trust.

Some people are more comfortable having such a discussion on a one-on-one basis. You know
your relative - base the scenario on what you believe is best and most comfortable for him.
Remember, you’ll probably have a lot to talk about and resolve, so make sure you jot down
everything that needs to be aired.

Don’t be afraid to bring a checklist with you, something to refer to so nothing gets overlooked.
One important point might be whether they’d consider selling a life insurance policy to help free up cash for expenses. There is a lot to learn about the process, so spend time doing your research to ensure you’re confident with the decision before moving through with it.

Don’t push it

Some people, either because of nerves or a desire to make it as easy as possible, will want to rush things and push the conversation in a direction they believe is most productive. Be aware that this may make your relative uncomfortable and feel pushed or forced. They may shut down and get upset, or even angry. You should be patient and let them lead the way and discuss what
they’re comfortable with.

Once they start talking, you’ll likely end up finding out what you intended to anyway. Don’t
engage in open disagreements or criticism. If something’s worrying or bothering you, wait for
another time to discuss it. Be sure your relative understands that any decisions you make together can be changed later - frame it as a fluid and evolving conversation.

Start with questions

It’s not unusual to get cold feet as you begin to talk and lose your sense of how to frame the
subject. Try engaging your relative with open-ended questions that encourage an exchange of
ideas and information. Ask what quality of life means to them, and if they could help with
something that’s been bothering you, or to help you in planning for the future. Sometimes,
knowing that they’ll be helping you will make them more receptive.

Starting a conversation about end-of-life matters with someone you love is an understandably difficult undertaking. Remember that you’re trying to begin the dialogue; let your relative talk about what matters to him and allow the discussion to unfold naturally. Avoid confrontation and don’t express frustration if you don’t learn everything you need to right away. Getting the ball rolling and making your relative comfortable is what matters.