Life ends in an instant. It happens to all of us, and to all our loved ones. Whether expected or not, the death of someone close to us leaves us emotionally distraught, sometimes unable to move forward for weeks and months.
How might we alleviate some of the burden of this distress for our own loved ones as well as for ourselves when we are the ones left behind?
To say that it is important to communicate your end-of-life wishes and critical answers to life’s logistical questions to your loved ones, is a vast understatement. Failing to do so can leave families battered with issues and decisions that can ultimately fracture them, sometimes for life. Especially when siblings are left to grapple amongst themselves on how Mom or Dad would’ve wanted things done, at one of the most highly charged times emotionally.
Make no mistake, it is not an easy conversation to have. Fear and uncertainty can make it difficult to navigate. But it is indeed one of the most important conversations you can EVER have. Not only is it likely to achieve the outcome you need, as far as your wishes being accurately carried out, and avoiding untold conflict that can come from family members disagreeing as to how they believe things should be handled, but the process of organizing yourself around all these issues will save your loved ones ridiculous amounts of time, money and energy. It is in fact, one of the most loving things you can do for them.
In addition, and perhaps more importantly, your relationships with those people most important to you have the opportunity to grow profoundly, simply by sitting down and having open and honest dialogue. Through the process, you can reconcile differences, as well as affirm bonds.
Use this as an opportunity to get to know each other better, to unlock mysteries and uncover secrets from the past.
Step one) Be sure your Last Will & Testament, as well as other legal documents such as your Medical Power of Attorney, are done and up-to- date.
Step two) A fantastic framework for the myriad of additional questions and concerns is found in a guide and workbook authored by Catherine L. Turner “Create a Legacy of Love: Everything Your Loved Ones Need to Know (When You Can No Longer Tell Them)”.
Not only do you need to communicate and record your own desires, you must ask your aging parents to do the same for you. This is where things can become even more tricky. Many of our elderly are of a mindset that “we just don’t like to talk about these things.” However, once the conversation begins, you may find them extremely happy to be sharing stories, memories and even family secrets.
Much of their fear about death might actually be eliminated as a result of knowing their legacy has been solidified, and that their family won’t be burdened. Our elderly are our “living history” and we should capture all the wisdom we can from them.
The above-mentioned book can be extremely useful for taking them through the process step-by-step. The best way to start the conversation is to be upfront. For instance, “Mom, I’ve been thinking about many questions I’d have if something critical were to happen to you tomorrow. Would you be willing to talk some of these things through with me?” If there is a hesitation, follow that up with “I would love to go through this with you. I would really enjoy having these conversations.”
If there is still a hesitation, “Would you prefer to do this on your own? I would understand that.” If that is their preference, leave the book with them to do it on their own, but follow-up with them to be sure they are making progress.
They may be very clear as to how they want to proceed, depending on how private they are and based on the dynamic of your relationship. Clearly, the more you can work with them on the process, the more opportunity you have to strengthen your relationship and create certainty around their wishes. So, if this is your desire, use the above leading statements to help them come to that decision.
No matter their decision, accept it and affirm it by saying, “I respect your decision” or “That seems like a smart way to go.” Always remember, keep your judgments to yourself, even if they are driving you crazy.
If they do allow you to take them through this process, by all means, be cognizant of talking to them on their level, never dumbing down a conversation or talking over their head. This is massively important to keep the lines of communication flowing. Express approval of their decision-making EVEN IF you don’t agree with the decision. These are their wishes, not yours. You will shut them down and stop the flow the minute they feel like you have your own agenda that does not align with theirs.
If your loved one has a positive experience, if you have allowed them to fully express their wishes without judgment and without “leading” them, you have opened the door to a level of trust, respect, and confidence that you simply can’t put a price on. Don’t be surprised if the intimacy of the conversations brings about dialogue that would never have happened otherwise.
This is the purpose of this process. To find a deeper level in your relationships. To solidify whatever exists and take it further. These moments of conversation are the ones you will never forget and certainly never regret. If anything, the regret could come from NOT having the tough conversations. It is always the things in life we didn’t do for which we feel the most regret.