Joan Rivers Death Reminds us to Have End-of-Life Conversation

Q. I am very close with my in-laws, who are both in their late 70’s, and all I want for them (and for everyone I care about) is to live a long happy life.  Unfortunately, the inevitable happens to us all, and when it does happen, I really want my entire family to be prepared ahead of time. However, in the case of my in-laws, this has been a really difficult task.

Whenever my husband and I bring up advance directives and end-of-life planning, my in-laws are completely averse to having the conversation, because it is too “depressing.” They change the subject every time. One Thanksgiving, my father-in-law confided in me that he would want to be taken off of life support should he become incapacitated and end up in a coma. I know that if there are no documents in place, my father-in-law’s wishes might not be met should the situation arise. 

My in-laws were huge Joan Rivers fans.  Do you know if Joan did end-of-life planning?  If so, and if it helped Melissa, maybe I use the example of Joan Rivers as a way to get my in-laws to have the end-of-life conversation that we so badly need to have.

A. Unlike so many of us, Joan Rivers was not uncomfortable talking about growing old or dying.  She told many jokes about death, and losing her memory because of aging was one of her favorite sources of comedy material. Joan’s willingness to make light of aging and dying almost made it appear that she would be immune to it.  Unfortunately, nobody is immune, but in Joan’s case, at least she was prepared.

All the jokes Joan Rivers told and everything she did to defy aging did not hide the fact that she was ready for the inevitable.  In fact, in recent TV tributes from her reality show from earlier this year, she earnestly pled with her daughter, Melissa, to be ready in case she did not make it out of an upcoming surgery.  Rivers told her daughter, over and over, that Melissa and Joan’s grandson, Cooper, would be fine when the day came.  Rivers attitude was that she had a remarkable life, even if it ended that day.

Joan Rivers died on September 4, 2014 at the age of 81, and based on her brilliant career and advanced planning, it is evident that she was smart, savvy, and that she made her end-of-life wishes well-known. When Melissa Rivers gave the final direction to take Joan off of life support, it was because Melissa knew for certain that Joan would not have wanted to stay on life support given the situation, because Joan had clearly expressed her wished ahead of time.

Talking about end of life issues is an emotional and difficult task for most of us, but it’s a vital first step to making sure your wishes are clear. Did you know that 60% of people say that making sure their family is not burdened by tough decisions is “extremely important,” yet 56% have not communicated their end-of-life wishes.  A conversation, followed by incapacity planning, can make all the difference, but must be done before it’s too late.

As you have experienced with your in-laws, it’s not easy to talk about how you want the end of your life to be. But it’s one of the most important conversations you can have with your loved ones. How do you get started? Below are some helpful resources:

  • Eldercare.gov, or the Eldercare Locator, recently released “Let’s Talk, Starting the Conversation about Health, Legal, and End of Life issues” that includes tips on preparing for the conversation, starting the conversation, keeping the conversation going, and community resources to aid in the planning process.
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman co-founded The Conversation Project to help families have these important end-of-life discussions. In a recent U.S. News and World Report video, she shares her compelling reasons for helping start the group and how important it is for all family members to sit down and talk. She also shares a “Starter Kit” to help families have the conversation.
  • A growing trend in gatherings, called Death Cafés, is gaining attention for presenting a comfortable way talk about death with others. Death Cafés bring strangers together in a public setting to have end-of-life conversations while sipping coffee and eating comfort foods like cake and cookies. Read our blog post on this topic for more details.

You can always use the story of Joan Rivers to spark the conversation that may encourage your in-laws to stop procrastinating and finally take action.  And, as Joan taught us, it’s okay to use humor even when talking about this difficult subject.  In fact, doing so may make it a little bit easier.

As Joan Rivers said, there is no need to be afraid of dying.  It will happen, and it will undoubtedly be a sad and stressful time for the loved ones you leave behind.  So why not make it as easy on them as you can? Once you have taken the step of speaking with your loved ones about your wishes, it is important for them to sign Incapacity Planning documents, including an Advance Medical Directive and General Power of Attorney, to make their wishes legally enforceable. Once your in-laws are ready, have them call us at our Virginia Elder Law Fairfax office at 703-691-1888 or at our Virginia Elder Law Fredericksburg office at 540-479-1435 to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation.

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