Should You Talk About Death During the Holidays?

I saw the following quote on Facebook today, and it really resonated with me. It made me think about my own mortality and about my loved ones, who I will be seeing during the holidays:

None of us are getting out of here alive, so please stop treating yourself like an afterthought. Eat the delicious food. Walk in the sunshine. Jump in the ocean. Say the truth you’re carrying in your heart like hidden treasure. Be silly. Be kind. Be weird. There’s no time for anything else.”

Okay, so we’re all going to die. Unless something changes, I have accepted it and I do eat the delicious food, enjoy the sunshine, and treat myself to the handbag I really want at the store. When I think of my loved ones though, I begin to wish that more people had this kind of attitude. If more people would accept that death is unavoidable and be willing to talk about it, it would make planning for end-of-life care so much easier.

My parents are coming for the holidays this year. We’ve attempted end-of-life discussions with the family in the past, but the subject is typically changed and the conversation is put off until some mysterious “next time.” I was wondering if there are any good ways to help us have an end-of-life conversation while everyone is in town for the holidays. Thanks for your help!

A. The glazed ham and sweet potato pie may be the same as always this Christmas, but a growing number of families plan to add a tradition to their holiday this year that involves a frank talk about their wishes for end-of-life care.

When end-of-life discussions are put off and happen in the hospital, it’s the worst place and the worst time because emotions are high, the patient may not be able to communicate, and important family members may be unavailable.

It is wise to have a conversation about what measures a person is comfortable with taking to prolong their life before those decisions are necessary, and the holidays are a perfect time to do so because hopefully most or all of the family will be together anyway. Conversations, along with proper advance care planning, can mean better quality of life for a patient and less stress and anxiety for their family and friends when the time comes.

End-of-Life Conversations

A family dinner with a side dish of death isn’t everyone’s idea of a festive meal. But you are on the right track that the holidays are an ideal time to have hard conversations about final preferences and plans. Luckily, there is thought-provoking information available that will help guide you in the right direction and get your family to open up about their wishes, even if they are reluctant at first. Here are some things you can do to lighten the moment when you’re faced with someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to talk about end-of-life matters:

Plant seeds: A seed planted can be as simple as commenting when someone famous dies. Even saying ‘I wouldn’t want that’, upon hearing that they have been buried, is a good start. You could also elaborate and say ‘I’d want to be cremated. What about you?’ Even if you don’t get an answer, remember you’re just doing the planting, and you may not see results immediately.

Phrase the conversation so it indicates you need your loved ones help. Talking about emergencies and end-of-life issues is often uncomfortable. Phrase the conversation starter so that it’s clear you are looking for their help in understanding their end-of-life wishes.

Keep it light: Consider starting with a “Bucket List” conversation. Everyone likes to talk about their “Bucket List” of things they want to do before they “kick the bucket.” This can naturally lead to a conversation about end-of-life planning.

Remind them of someone they know: Remind them of a story of someone who was not prepared and had dire consequences as a result. This might challenge them to be willing to have the conversation to avoid a similar trauma for their own family.

Be a good listener: You may not agree with the plan, but you need to listen to their goals and desires. This will help keep the conversation going.

Know the right questions: Having the right questions to ask will help you approach this conversation with confidence. Confidence will make it easier to start the conversation, and having questions prepared will help keep it going.

Use humor: No one wants to be depressed when talking with their family. Use humor to keep the conversation light, even when talking about heavy subjects.

Give your loved ones time to think and revisit the conversation: You don’t have to have the entire conversation in one day. Give your loved ones time to think about things and revisit the conversation at a later date.

End-of-Life Planning

Too many people are dying in a way they wouldn’t choose, and too many of their loved ones are left feeling bereaved, guilty, and uncertain. This is why it so important to take the time to share the way we want to live at the end of our lives, and to follow it up with proper advance care planning. A conversation, followed by appropriate legal planning, can make all the difference, but must be done before it’s too late.

Advance Care Planning in Northern Virginia

Preparing an advance care plan is about making decisions and having conversations with loved ones and with health, legal, and financial professionals — letting them know your personal preferences before you find yourself in a crisis situation. If you are curious about when to start, it is younger than most people think. In fact, any time after you’ve turned 18 is a good time to start planning!

Once the important conversation with your loved ones (and your physician, if you choose) occurs, and important decisions are discussed, it is important to work with a Certified Elder Law Attorney, such as myself, to make sure that you have proper incapacity planning documents in place. These include not only a properly-drafted General Power of Attorney with comprehensive asset protection powers, but also our firm’s proprietary 4-Needs Advance Medical Directive, which includes a Medical Power of Attorney, our proprietary Long-term Care Directive™ and dementia directive, and a Near-Death Directive. When you or your loved ones are ready, please call us to set up an appointment for an initial consultation:

Elder Care Attorney Fairfax: 703-691-1888

Elder Care Attorney Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435

Elder Care Attorney Rockville: 301- 519-8041

Elder Care Attorney Washington, D.C.: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.