How to Talk to Your Parents About Death

Why are we so afraid of talking about death?

Friends and relatives avoid talking about death because they worry they may say the wrong things, feel guilty about the past, or are in denial or fear loss of their loved one. Nobody wants to imagine a world without their loved one, so nobody is talking about it.

According to a survey conducted by the Conversation Project, 90% of people surveyed say that talking to their loved ones about end-of-life care is important, but only 27% have had the conversation.

If we reframe how we think about death and a life well-lived, talking about death doesn’t have to be so difficult.

“So death and dying are seen as failings of our bodies and technology,” Dr. Claudia Aguirre writes for Headspace. “But what if we could change this narrative to show that acknowledging the inevitable end is just as heroic, and giving us permission to say “If I can live well, then I can die well.”

Making decisions now prevents tough decisions later on.

Having a conversation when your parents are still in good health and in control of their decisions can be an empowering and therapeutic experience. When we talk to our parents about after-life plans, we can honor their wishes after they pass. Your parents may have specific ideas for how they’d like to be cared for, celebrated and remembered. They will also have peace of mind knowing that their information will be accessible and secure after they pass.

“By the time patients are approaching the end, they are often too weak or disabled to express their preferences, if those preferences were ever considered at all,” Jessica Zitter M.D. writes in the New York Times “First, Sex Ed. Then Death Ed.”

Dr. Zitter believes we should have conversations about death early on in life and as part of our school curriculums. She thinks that talking about death shouldn’t be more taboo than sex.

According to the Stanford School of Medicine, 80% of Americans say they would like to die at home. In reality, 60% pass in acute care hospitals, 20% in nursing homes and only 20% die at home. A large disparity in these numbers shows that our loved ones’ end of life wishes are not being expressed, planned or honored.

How do I talk to my parents about their deaths?

So, you’re ready to talk to your parents about death.

First, think through your goals for the conversation and questions you have. Put yourself in your parents’ shoes and think about how you would answer the questions you want to ask. Your conversation may cover end-of-life medical care, celebration and memorials and organizing personal, financial, insurance, digital and legal information.

Write down your goals and questions and jot down a few of your own answers to them. Know that this will not be the last conversation you have about end-of-life care and after-life plans.

Next, plan a time and place to have the conversation. Think about who else should be involved. The next best time could be when your family is gathered for a holiday or graduation. Prepare for the conversation with whoever else will be included. Practice asking your questions and sharing your responses.

When you’re ready for the conversation, break the ice. Here are some suggestions:

  • “I’ve been thinking about organizing my personal information and meeting with a lawyer to put together a will. Have you made plans for your after-life?”
  • “Can we talk about something I’ve been thinking about?”

When it’s go-time, be a good listener. Write down their wishes and keep them in a secure place. Your parents may not completely comfortable expressing how they feel — and that’s okay. What matters is that your parents know you care and the door to talk is open.

Read our big questions to ask your parents during a conversation about after-life plans.

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