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Talking about End of Life at Family Gatherings

By Johanna Munson


The dining room table is already groaning with food, more people keep arriving, and the smiles on people’s faces express the joy and relief of gathering in person again. Then during the meal Grandpa loses track of the story he was telling and gets upset. “I’m fine!” he says and leaves the table in a huff. Or you notice that one of your beloved aunts has a tremor in her hand that wasn’t there last time you got together. No one says anything, but you can’t shake the feeling that someone should.

Thinking it may be time to have some conversations about these changes, but not sure how to start?

If you said yes, you already recognize the value of having what we call “advance care planning” conversations. You may be in one of a variety of situations:

- an adult child concerned about aging parents

- a person who recognizes it’s time to plan for their own life, and wants to talk to adult children and/or loved ones

- a partner to someone you notice is having issues

Why don’t we want to talk about coming up with a plan in advance?

Past experience with loss of loved ones can be a block to addressing the fact that they too will no longer be here one day. You may worry about your family, or about the changes in lifestyle that aging might impose. Those with both aging parents and kids still at home have a lot to juggle! Older parents may find it hard to face their declining capacity- physical and/or mental- and may be in denial. At the same time they are reluctant to impose on a child whether they live close by or not, and relationships may be strained. And if you’re on your own, how are you going to manage?

One of our worst fears as a child was the death of a parent, so you might have feelings of abandonment or think you’ll be unable to cope on your own, whether it’s a parent or a partner who’s aging. And then there’s the question of what happens next- is there an afterlife or is this all there is?!

Basically, it’s easy to keep the blinders on and go about our lives- until something happens that requires us face these decisions.

What happens if we ignore the “elephant in the room?”

Consider the results of not talking- it’s like a pebble in your shoe. If you leave it there it creates a sore spot, and if you continue to ignore it, you might end up needing medical attention! We wouldn’t walk around with it for very long, would we. We’re more likely to take our shoe off, shake it out, then put our shoe back on and feel much better- but still ignore that pebble! Let’s do better than that with advance care planning conversations.

Pick up that imaginary pebble and see what’s going on. It could be that no one wants to talk about the elephant in the room- aging and death. Western culture for the most part does not have structures in place that support these conversations.

Share the benefits of having these conversations before there’s an emergency

What can you do to encourage loved ones to share their thoughts? Not knowing what our loved ones would want creates stress, could lead to unwanted outcomes, and can cause chaos in family dynamics.

Here’s how to start:

  1. Pick out a journal or start a digital document to keep track of conversations.

  2. Do a brain dump of everything you want to address (new symptoms, documentation, finances, healthcare providers, etc.). This may be overwhelming but it’s important to get it out of your brain and be able to refer back to items later

  3. Choose 1 item or topic to start and focus on that one thing.

  4. Set an intention for your first conversation. It could be connection, respect, communication, getting real, etc.

  5. Create the context for your conversation. You might have it going through photo albums, or sorting out treasured items, or on a cemetery visit or drive. Start with a recollection: “Remember when your dad had to move to assisted living?”

  6. Anticipate what their reaction might be and name it: “I’m feeling scared bringing this subject up, and you may be too.”

  7. Pick a time to have the conversation and do it! Then reflect on how it went, taking notes in your journal. Write down what worked or didn’t, and what the next steps are.

Some questions to consider:

1. Do I talk to others before I launch the conversation?

You don’t want them to feel left out, so consider the likely level of cooperation, their relevant skills and resources, and their proximity. This could be an opportunity for multi-generational interaction and growth!

2. How and when should I have these conversations?

Think about relationship patterns and how conversations usually go. It may be easier for them to read an email or letter, so they have time to process your request. You could have a video chat or record a message if you are more comfortable doing that. And remember- it’s not a “one and done” situation. Think of this as the beginning of a series of talks.

3. What if no one wants to have a discussion?

In the end we can only control our own actions and reactions, right? Setting your intention that you’re doing this work for your own peace of mind is one of the best ways to feel that you’ve achieved your goal.

Here’s a short meditation to help you get started:

Take a deep breath in, starting with your belly then bringing air into your lungs. Raise your shoulders, then let them drop and blow the breath out through your mouth.

Feel where there’s tension and shrug your shoulders a bit. Is it in your chest or your throat? We hold tension there when we’re reluctant to talk; we’re literally holding our breath.

Now consider where you will feel relief when you’re able to start talking. My belly relaxes- what about you? What burden will you be able to release? You don’t have to be specific about the topic or anything- just imagine being able to talk.

And now that you have experienced the effect that starting conversations might have on you, imagine how it ripples out to those you are talking with. What could possibly change for them? What burden could they put down?

And last, what will change in the world because you’ve been able to talk? This can seem a little harder to grasp, but sit with the image of those ripples spreading out. Who else’s life might be changed? The effect is pretty amazing, I’d say!

There is no perfect time or perfect way to start- so gather your courage and do it!

Article written by Johanna Munson

Johanna Munson is a highly practical and deeply spiritual entrepreneur who brings you peace of mind through End of Life planning. As a Peace of Mind Guide and the CEO of End of Life Resources, LLC, she supports adults to face the often-challenging conversations and decisions around End of Life planning. She works with individual clients to put together a roadmap for loved ones to follow. As a licensed Willow EOL Educator she provides engaging workshops (online and in person) on advance care planning topics. Johanna is a life-long educator and coach, and brings her deep appreciation for the human capacity for continued growth to her work with clients. Planning brings peace, and that is her wish for all.

Phone/Text: 206-406-0063

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