How To Prepare For When Your Parents Talk About End-Of-Life Planning
So It’s Time For “The (Other) Talk”
My mother sat me down in her office and the room took on the sort of ambiance usually reserved for the delivery of bad news. But that wasn’t necessarily the case—not yet at least. Just a few days shy of turning 60, she had decided it was time to go over her will and last wishes.
Considering her general good health, this wasn’t a chat that I’d long had to anticipate or dread. (I knew I was lucky to that end.) This was happening on her own terms without a ticking or threatened timeline. And for that reason, I did my best to react with measure.
Still, when parents age—or rather, when they begin to accommodate or arrange for their aging—it can knock us, their children, off our marks. While we may be prepared for them to turn another year older, it can be more difficult to prepare for their embracing (or rejection) of aging. What’s equally important is our own acceptance or denial of their aging. (As is the admittedly less impassioned but necessary preparation of legal documents.)
According to a 2018 national survey conducted by The Conversation Project, over 90 percent of Americans believe it’s important to discuss their wishes for end-of-life care—and would be willing to do so—but only 32 percent have actually had such a conversation. So to relieve our loved ones of their discomfort and ourselves of the unforeseen but inevitable emotional stressors, we can do our best to begin preparing.
Though the emotions felt by parent and child are endured individually, they’re still intertwined, neither one more or less valid than the other. What our parents will experience, we will too—albeit differently. Until then, here are a few ways we can healthily support our parents when they begin preparing for their transition while also caring for ourselves.
My mild reaction to my mother’s request felt like the least I could do. She’d been gracious enough to warn me prior to my arrival that this conversation would be on her agenda. She’d also approached the table with an assuaging candidness, authentic calm, and number of dutifully organized documents. (I think we even managed to laugh a few times.) I figured if she could arrive even-tempered, I could, you know, not selfishly throw a tantrum?
Anjani Amladi, MD, a board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist, advises this empathetic approach as well. “It’s understandable that this conversation may be sad,” she says. “But imagine what it is like for your parent.” And so I did. I imagined my mother having to consider, with quiet resign, if her younger self would be proud, if she has achieved all the things she desires, if she has provided best she could for her children.
That last part is often what informs the discussion in the first place. With all its logistics and line items, the conversation is (still) about our care—disguised as one about our parents. “Parents are conditioned to worry about their children,” says Amladi, “which is why it is natural for them to start thinking about end-of-life care as they age. They are not bringing up this topic to be morbid; they are broaching the subject to be sure you are prepared for their inevitable departure whether it be tomorrow or years from now.”
In return, as a sign of gratitude for their being considerate, we can offer comfort too, by restoring confidence. Shelley Me’Chette, an author and certified life purpose coach, says, “Children can make this conversation a little easier for parents by reassuring them that not only will their wishes be taken care of, but [also] they—the children—will be okay. Making parents feel reassured that all will be well will make them feel more at ease.”
As my mother and I sat at her computer, scrolling the digital pages of her will and final wishes, I took no notes as I knew this would likely not be the last conversation we’d have regarding the matter. (So much can happen in the coming years that could render a will’s current details moot and other unforeseen ones essential.) But because I live 3,000 miles away, and because the talk only lasted a little over an hour, it felt manageable. I didn’t yet need nor have the luxury of being able to break it up into emotionally digestible bites.
However, this is what clinical psychologist Brian Wind, PhD., suggests we do if we find ourselves overwhelmed.
“You might feel extremely uncomfortable having a conversation about death,” says Wind. “But be patient with yourself. Ask your parent if you can limit the conversation to 10 minutes in the beginning… [or] if you can postpone the discussion to another day.” Wind says that, over time, you can increase the duration of the discussions as you begin to feel more comfortable.
Another way to create space between the topic at hand and our emotional attachment to it is to embrace our imaginations. If feeling unsettled, Wind advises that we try to view our parents’ arrangements as theoretical. He says, “Detaching yourself from it and thinking of the plans as something that belongs to another friend or acquaintance, instead of a loved one, can help you to see your parent’s plans more objectively.”
In my case, the literal distance that divides me and my parents means I’ve naturally been granted longer intermissions between these inevitable installments of the conversation. (I’ve yet to decide if that’s better or worse.) Still, in the moments after talking to my mother, I felt relieved that there were no game-time decisions being asked of me. And I felt grateful that my mother’s naturally diligent personality, and our unbridled style of communicating, had motivated her to both begin planning and include me in the process. I left feeling protected, prepared, and at peace.
Ask The Hard Questions (And Prepare the Hard Documents)
There a number of legally binding documents that can be arranged in advance to ease end-of-life planning. And there’s an even greater number of questions that need to be answered in order to prepare each. The details can be dizzying. For example, a last will explains how one’s beneficiaries will inherit the deceased’s property and assets, while a living will outlines their preferences for medical care if they become unable to communicate. A power of attorney appoints someone to manage the owner’s financial and personal matters if they cannot make such decisions themselves, while a healthcare power of attorney empowers the appointed to do the same but in regards to medical care specifically.
If your parent fails to take initiative in these arrangements, or if they simply refuse to do so, it may be in your best interest to get the ball rolling yourself. Not only can these documents provide clarity to one’s children, siblings, spouses, and physicians, but they can also prevent conflict amongst them, too.
When ready, your inquires can range from logistical to sentimental. You can ask: How many financial accounts do you have and where are they located? How do you envision your memorial service? Would you like to be an organ donor? And what amends, if any, would you like to make with others?
For more guidance, the AARP suggests 12 critical questions to ask aging parents and the National Institute of Aging offers advice on end-of-life planning, caregiving for others, and more. Plus, the Conversation Project—which was launched by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in an effort to transform the way we talk about death—offers downloadable starter guides. For assistance in creating the aforementioned documents, personal finance management tool Quicken sells the software WillMaker & Trust, while Do Your Own Will is an online service that can be accessed for free.
Create More Memories
Many a movie has taught us that when humans are scared of getting hurt, when they fear becoming emotionally attached to things, people, and outcomes they can’t control, they attempt to opt out of the experience altogether. But, as we know, real life isn’t like a movie. And in this circumstance, that shouldn’t (and won’t) be the solution.
Indeed, what we miss when someone dies are the memories of the moments we shared together. And when parents begin to plan for that transition, we’re reminded that the pain we’ll experience will be palpable. To protect ourselves, we may think that the safest thing to do is become emotionally unavailable. We might think, “I’ve already got a trove full of memories; how could I bear to add more?”
But that’s exactly what I want to do now. Add more. It’s what Me’Chette suggests too. “Spend quality time,” she says. “One of the best ways to embrace the fact that parents will one day leave us is to have no regrets by spending as much time with them while they are alive. Make it a priority. By showing your parents that you care now, it will make the day that they are no longer here a little easier to process.”
Prior to this discussion with my mother, I hadn’t yet thought of interviewing my parents, of scrapbooking with them, of vacationing with them one-on-one. (Well, I had, but I’ve always figured I had more time.) I want to ask them questions on camera, take more photos of them in their greyer years, and hoard examples of their handwriting. All the things an 11-year-old me didn’t think to do when my grandmother was terminally ill.
If visiting your parent in-person isn’t possible, you can make it a priority to record your video and phone calls, save their voicemails, write letters, and send sentimental gifts the old fashioned way. And if spending one-on-one time with your parent is harmful to your physical or mental health, your affection (or obligation) can still be executed via preferred proxies.
Not all of us are given the chance to process and prepare for a parent’s passing. Many of us lose them unexpectedly, without warning and without a carefully pillowed place to land. So if you get the opportunity to do so with a parent, consider it good fortune that you have both a loved one who refuses to leave you without a compass and one you get to actively and intentionally embrace a bit longer.
Danielle Cheesman was born and raised in New Jersey, where she lived until moving to Philadelphia to study journalism at Temple University. She has spent her years writing and developing editorial visions for music, art, and lifestyle brands. Now residing in Los Angeles, you can usually find her taking pictures, making playlists, or cuddling her pup. Say hi on Instagram!