How to Have Essential End-Of-Life Conversations

When my dad was in his mid-80s, I happened across a New York Times article about the need to have end-of-life conversations with your parents, and it really hit home for me.

I knew this needed to be an in-person discussion. So the next time I was home, visiting my dad in Buffalo, I waited for a calm time with no distractions. 

One afternoon, we went on a walk, and I remember things being so clear and quiet around us.

I took a deep breath. “There’s something I really need to talk to you about, Dad.”

I’d thought this through carefully, and the next thing I said was, “I don’t care who gets what. That’s not important.” He nodded slightly, gazing at the sidewalk we walked on. “I just want to know that your will, your healthcare directive, and all that is put together and airtight.”

More words came stumbling out. Grieving for him would be horrible enough. I didn’t want a big legal fight on top of that. I think he sensed how awkward this whole conversation was for me.

He reassured me that all those documents were put together, signed, and ready when the time came. We talked more about how he wanted his last days to be handled, as well as funeral arrangements.

I could finally breathe in the cool fall air with ease. We’d had “The Conversation,” and it hadn’t been difficult. Dad even seemed relieved to talk about it.

You may be dreading this discussion with your aging parent as I did then, or perhaps you’re a professional facing these end-of-life conversations with your clients. Either way, navigating these moments is difficult, but a calm and respectful approach can make it much easier. 

Reassure them

Like I did with my dad, you want to find a gentle way of assuring them you’re not interested in who gets what. 

The last thing you want your loved one to think is that you’re having this conversation out of personal interest.

You’re not trying to sway them into bequeathing you as much as possible.

Let them know how much you’ll miss them and how much harder it will be for you to process your grief if you’re also battling a nasty fight in court because there were no documents to prevent that from happening.

When, as a professional, you approach the conversation, remember that this is an incredibly personal moment for your client.

Estate planning attorney Ken Kossoff of Panitz & Kossoff, LLP, and founder of Solo Aging Solutions, explains it so well, “I remember I was meeting with a husband and wife, and we were talking about a whole bunch of things relating to incapacity, mortality, and all the things people don’t want to talk about. As they were walking out of my office, the husband turned to me and said, ‘By the time this process is over, you’re going to know us better than anybody else knows us.'”

Like Ken, I cannot overstate the importance of empathy. Listen closely. Ease into the conversation respectfully and kindly.

Consider asking questions like:

  • How do you want to be remembered?
  • What are your hopes and fears for the people you love?
  • How do you imagine your children’s (or beneficiaries’) lives after you’re gone?

Remember how intimate this information is for your client, and give them the time and space they need to figure it out with you.

Don’t pry about details

This is such an intimate conversation. Asking about who gets what or some other detail can shut things down fast or possibly lead to an argument. 

Keep in mind that you don’t actually need to know the fine points of the will or trust.

When dad and I had our talk, he did say everything was to be split evenly between my two sisters and me. But I never asked him to tell me that.

And while you don’t need the details, you do need to make sure they’ve signed their end-of-life documents. You also want to make sure that your loved one or client has told at least one person where to find their estate plan when the time comes. 

A few years after dad and I first discussed things, I was back home visiting him again. 

He called me over to his desk (which he’d parked in the middle of the family room for some silly reason), pulled open its big file drawer, and began pointing to certain folders. “So here’s my will. There’s my trust. These are the bank accounts, and this is the safe deposit box key.”

I was honored by his trust in me. He knew I wouldn’t go snooping, and it was all still in place the night he died. 

And if your parents’ house is anything like dad’s was (the family homestead since 1966), you probably don’t want to be hunting through decades and decades of life’s paraphernalia, trying to figure out where the estate plan is hidden.

Give yourself enough time

This cannot be a hasty discussion. You want to make sure you have plenty of time. 

It’s not just about making sure you have the end-of-life conversation while you still can, but you also want to set aside enough time to let the conversation unfold the way it needs to.

Pick a moment when things feel calm, when no one’s distracted or upset, and give yourself at least an hour. You may need less time, but you want to leave space for emotions or stories that come up.

If you’re discussing this with your parent, you may think you already know how they’ll react, but stay open—an emotional parent may end up being very pragmatic, and vice versa. 

And if you’re broaching the subject with an aging client, you want to make sure you have enough time to complete the conversation, whichever way it goes, and come to a satisfactory conclusion.

Remember that end-of-life conversations aren’t about you

There are a lot of strong feelings that go along with having difficult conversations around topics like end-of-life directives.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own emotions and fears. Instead, try stepping into your parent’s (or your client’s) hearts and minds.

Challenge yourself to consider things from their perspective.

  • What are they worried about as they grow older?
  • What do they need us to know and plan for?
  • How can we best support them throughout their later life?

When you’re able to do that, it allows you to be present for them in the way they need you to be.

Beginning that end-of-life conversation is challenging and necessary. But it can evolve, as it did for me, into a cherished memory. 

For more support, head to our Glossary of Professions to learn about all the services available to you, your clients, and your aging loved ones.

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About: Marty Stevens-Heebner

An award-winning entrepreneur, designer and author, Clear Home Solutions’ CEO Marty Stevens-Heebner and her staff of experts work with older adults and their families when their treasures, paperwork and “stuff” get in the way of moving their lives forward. Clear Home Solutions is where compassion meets know-how, thanks to her hard-working staff of experts. They tackle moves, downsizing and organizing, as well as professional home inventories, managing all the logistics and stress so their clients don’t have to.

Marty was inspired to launch Clear Home Solutions 8 years ago after her experiences with her 90-year-old father and her 88-year-old aunt with dementia. She’s the President-Elect of the National Association of Senior and Specialty Move Managers (NASMM), and Clear Home Solutions was the first nationally accredited company in her industry in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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