Overcoming the Fear of Death

Q. My mother always said that there are two topics to avoid in conversation, whenever possible: religion and politics. Unlike some of my Facebook friends and others I have known, I took this advice to heart and don’t have many enemies. Now that she is in her 80’s, and I am in my 60’s, and my daughter is nearly 40, I realize that there’s a third topic that might as well be included, because nobody likes talking about iteither, and that’s death.

Everyone knows that we don’t have control over dying, and death is essentially a part of life. What we do have some control over, however, is how we choose to make our exit. But it requires planning. Planning that my mother, my wife, and my daughter would rather put off or avoid altogether. 

So, how do I convey to them that it’s time to start talking about the dreaded subject of death, and to start planning, when they are so reluctant to do so? The best way I can think of is by holding a family intervention. This is where I need assistance, mainly talking points. What can I say to convince my family to plan for end-of-life now, while they can still make decisions about this most important topic for themselves? 

A. Although death is an inevitable part of life, many people (including your family, as you described) are reluctant to face the fact that our current physical bodies are not going to last forever and that we should really talk about and plan for our end-of-life choices. As you seem to be aware, thinking about your end-of-life choices today can improve your quality of life in the future and ease the burden on your family.

Many people don’t like to think about or talk about death, but it’s almost impossible to know what a dying person’s wishes truly are unless the issues have been discussed ahead of time and included in incapacity planning documents, including Advance Directives. Talking about death with those close to us is not about giving up on life, but a way to ensure greater quality of life when faced with a life-limiting illness or tragic accident. When your loved ones are clear about your preferences for treatment, they’re free to devote their energy to care and compassion. But how do you discuss your wishes with loved ones who are reluctant to discuss these things?

If Your Loved One is Afraid of Dying

Please have them check out my Spiritual Book List  I believe that we are all on a spiritual journey.  These are just some of the books that had a profound influence on my spiritual journey, shaping my world view and my understanding of life and death.  I began this part of my spiritual journey proximately 25 years ago, after the death of my first son, Jonathan (a preemie who lived for just one day).  My journey has continued through the unexpected death of both of my parents at relatively young ages. All of the books on this list (and hundreds more like them) are, in my opinion, conclusive proof that what we call “death” is merely a continuation of our spiritual journey. We are not human beings who have an occasional spiritual experience; we are eternal spiritual beings having a brief human experience.  Regardless of your current religious or spiritual views, if you or a loved one have ANY doubt whatsoever about the reality of eternal life, I encourage you to read some or all of these books.

Tips and Talking Points

The only way to be certain that your loved ones understand your wishes is to sit down and have the conversation, or an “intervention” as you described. Here are some tips:

  • A good place to start is to choose a time and place where you and your loved ones feel comfortable and at ease, such as after a family dinner, on a walk, or sitting outside in the sun.
  • Remember, not everything has to be discussed at once. The conversation can be spread out over different times.
  • Be patient with your loved ones. Fear and denial are common. Some people need longer to become comfortable talking about dying, others may have different feelings about what end-of-life plans should involve.

Other ways you could break the ice include the following:

  • Remember how someone in the family died—was it a “good” death or a “hard” death?   How will yours be different?  “I was thinking about what happened to (Uncle Joe), and it made me realize…”
  • “Even though I’m okay right now, I’m worried that (I’ll get sick), and I want to be prepared.”
  • “I need to think about the future. Will you help me?”
  • “I just answered some questions about how I want the end of my life to be. I want you to see my answers. And I’m wondering what your answers would be.”


Discussions with family members can help avoid unpleasant scenes and confrontations if/when you can no longer make healthcare decisions for yourself. While family members may have little legal authority to make decisions for incapacitated patients, they often feel they have moral authority. They may be confused by statements not previously shared with them, and may even try to contest your wishes legally if they feel your choices are not in your “best interest.”

Besides talking to your loved ones, you should share your end-of-life wishes with your physician. He or she can point out any illogical or inconsistent features of your requests, and tell you if there are aspects of your requests that he or she cannot honor because of personal, moral, or professional constraints.

End-of-life Issues in an Advance Medical Directive

The following are issues you should consider and discuss with loved ones and an experienced elder law attorney, such as myself

  • Whom do you want to make decisions for you if you are not able to make your own, both on financial matters and health care decisions? The same person may not be right for both.
  • What medical treatments and care are acceptable to you? Are there some that you fear?
  • Do you wish to be resuscitated if you stop breathing and/or your heart stops?
  • Do you want to be hospitalized or stay at home, or somewhere else, if you are seriously or terminally ill?
  • How will your care be paid for? Do you have adequate insurance? What might you have overlooked that will be costly at a time when your loved ones are distracted by grieving over your condition or death?
  • What actually happens when a person dies? Do you want to know more about what might happen? Will your loved ones be prepared for the decisions they may have to make?

Source: Family Caregiver Alliance

Remember: Don’t feel like you can never change your mind. Your opinions and wishes can change over time and Advance Medical Directives can be revised.

National Healthcare Decisions Day is Next Week!

National Healthcare Decisions Day (NHDD), an initiative of The Conversation Project, is a massive effort to highlight the importance of advance healthcare decision-making. Now in its 10th year, NHDD is expanding from one day to a full week of events from April 16-22.

NHDD exists to inspire, educate, and empower the public and providers about the importance of advance care planning. At the Farr Law Firm, we take ourcommitment one step further by making sure that clients’ healthcare directives are immediately available to family members and to the hospital in an emergency.  With a membership in DocuBank that we provide, clients know that a hospital can get their legal directives and other critical medical information around the clock, just by carrying a wallet card. Read more about Docubank here.

Ready for Incapacity Planning?

Talking about end of life issues is an emotional and difficult task for most of us, and it is an important first step to making sure your wishes are clear. Once you have taken the step of speaking with your loved ones about your wishes, it is important to develop incapacity planning documents, including an Advance Medical Directive, to make your wishes legally enforceable. If you and your loved ones have not done Incapacity Planning, Long-Term Care Planning, or Estate Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), now is a great time to plan and get prepared. Call us to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Fairfax Estate Planning Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Estate Planning Attorney: 540-479-1435
Rockville Estate Planning Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Estate Planning Attorney: 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.