Talking About Death With Your Parents

How to have "the talk"

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Alyssa Ruderman

Do you remember where you were when you had “the talk?” I distinctly remember all of my important conversations with my parents happening on hikes or in cars. The common denominator? There’s no real way out. 

As a parent, you know that it’s an incredibly important conversation to have with your child. You know it needs to happen, but how do you find the right time and place? How do you approach the topic naturally without making them feel uncomfortable? How do you strike the balance between speaking matter of factly and not stoking fear or anxiety? 

I’m not, and never have been, the parent of a pre-teen. I am, however, the 31-year-old child of parents in their 60s. Me and many of my millennial friends with Gen X or Boomer parents are finding ourselves asking the same questions for a new version of “the talk.”  With parents who’d like to think they’re going to live forever, how do we talk about the inevitable? 

On the whole, we don’t like thinking about the fact that we, and the people that we love, are going to die someday. My parents, who are rational, pragmatic, prepared people (whose loose funeral wishes I have known for some time) took two full years to write their wills. These things can be tough to confront and these conversations can be difficult to have. 

Why it’s important to have them anyway. 
Simply put, without a plan in place before you need it, things are going to be really hard for you when you do need it. 

Plus, the only way to make sure your parents' wishes are honored is to know what those wishes are. Without those questions answered, you’re going to have to make those decisions on their behalf, and that’s a lot to carry.  

How do I initiate the conversation?
First and foremost, identify the right time and place. Maybe while they’re still blowing out their birthday candles isn’t a great time to ask about their will.  

Secondly, use yourself as a catalyst for conversation: 

  1. Express to them that you’ve been looking toward the future a lot and it’s got your wheels spinning: “I’ve been thinking a lot about the future lately and I think I want to put a will together. Do you have your end-of-life plans in place? It stresses me out to think that I wouldn’t know what you’d want if something happened”
  2. Make up a friend whose scenario might be a motivator or cautionary tale: “I have a friend from college who lost her dad last year and she had to go through the whole process making guesses on what he would have wanted. It’s got me thinking about what would happen if I were in her shoes.”

No matter the tactic you choose for broaching the topic, make sure the reason you’re bringing it up is front and center: you don’t want to have to agonize over making decisions on their behalf one day. Them providing you with this information is, in fact, a selfless act that will make your life easier. 

What should I ask?
You can use a tool like Lantern to walk step-by-step through everything you’ll need to know (you can even send them there directly to fill things out on their own), but if you opt to go it on your own, the list below is a great place to start. 

Start with the more sentimental; ask about what legacy they want to leave, what they’d want people to remember about them, how they’d want their memorial service to feel.

Then dive into the more tactical: 

  • Do they have a living will / advanced care directive? This essentially lets a caregiver know what kind of medical care they’d like to receive in case they can’t express those wishes for themselves.
  • Have they assigned Power of Attorney? This allows them to appoint an agent to act on their behalf when it comes to legal, financial, and healthcare matters. That agent can then do things like pay bills, make decisions about dependents, and manage investments if they’re unable to
  • Have they had a last will and testament written up? In the absence of a will, the state gets to decide what to do with their assets. To make sure their belongings (and money) end up in the right hands, those designations need to be made.
  • Is there a designated place where important documents live? You’ll need to get your hands on everything from what’s listed above to marriage papers to vehicle insurance -- make sure you know where to look. 

The best way to make sure that you get out of this what you need is to set small goals and build in accountability. 

“Take a look at this site”  requires less motivation than “Get all of your plans in place.” Then you have a jumping-off point for your next conversation: “What did you think of the site?” 

If you can steer the ship, even better: “This is really important to me -- can we have a standing call for 15 minutes every Wednesday night to tackle this together?” 

These conversations aren’t easy, but they’re important. Talking about these things doesn't make them any more likely to happen, it just means you’ll be more prepared and more in control when they do. 

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Categories: Planning Ahead, Talking About Death

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