Have you ever started to talk about an aspect of end-of-life planning with a family or friends and received responses like, “Oh, we don’t need to talk about that yet, dear,” or “Stop being so morbid!”
Or maybe you’ve been wanting to talk with someone in your life about planning ahead and getting organized, but don’t know how to approach the topic and open the door for end-of-life plans that reflect who and what matter most. You have ideas in your heart and mind about how your people are going to react, and it’s just too uncomfortable to go there.
Talking about death in a death-phobic and death-denying culture can certainly be a challenge. At the same time, end-of-life planning conversations are a powerful gateway to connect meaningfully about life and death.
After spending more than ten years leading peace-building programs for Palestinian and Israeli youth, I’m quite adept with making difficult conversations work. I applied that experience and some best practices from years of conflict-resolution and communication training to create a tool for end-of-life planning conversations.
I put together Willow’s 5 Steps for Successful End-of Life Planning Conversations, an interactive, fillable tool to help you start—and keep having—fruitful end-of-life planning conversations.Here is a summary of those steps:
Five Steps for Successful End-of-Life Planning Conversations
STEP 1: Set your intention
Before you bring up the topic, it’s important to reflect on what you hope to get from your talk. Setting an intention for yourself and the conversation will make a big difference to how the conversation will go. In this step you can also consider the impact the conversation will have on the relationship between you and the person you’ll be talking to.
For example, when I had this conversation with my siblings, the impact I wanted it to have on me and on them was to get some clarity about what we each wanted for our after-death care. The impact I wanted the conversation to have on us was to bring us closer together.
STEP 2: Identify your concerns
When you anticipate that the conversation will be challenging, simply stating your concerns before you start almost always reduces the tension for all parties. This step helps you figure out what you may be worried about and how to phrase it.
When you talk to someone who usually avoids talking about death, you may say something like, “I want to talk to you about something, and I’m worried you’re going to think I’m being morbid.” or “I’m concerned you’re not going to find this very comfortable.” This may seem counter intuitive, but trust me, this eases the way!
STEP 3: Create the context
One way to bring up an “unpopular” topic is by sharing with your person what prompted you to want to do some end-of-life planning. Step three guides you to think about what conditions or situations led you to want to have this conversation. For example, you may say something like:
- It was very stressful for me and my siblings to argue about my mother’s medical treatments in her final weeks. I really don’t want to put our kids through that.
- When Uncle David died, I found the funeral to be so meaningful. I’m sure it’s exactly what he wanted. I hope that when I die, you and my friends will know what I want.
STEP 4: Explain your motivation
Sometimes the best way to start a conversation is to share why you want to have the conversation in the first place. In this step you’ll find a list of positive benefits that may result from having the conversation, and another list of negative consequences that may arise from not having the conversation. You get to check off the ones that resonate with you so that you can share them with your person. Some examples include:
By talking about this now and taking steps to prepare for our inevitable deaths:
- We’ll know what’s important to each other when it comes to our health and personal care.
- We’ll (hopefully) die as “well” as possible when the time comes.
I’m afraid that if we don’t talk about it:
- There will be unnecessary conflict among family and community members.
- We won’t know what’s important to each other at the end of our lives.
STEP 5: Reflect on your conversation
No matter how well your conversation went or how challenging it was, this is where you’re prompted to reflect on how you feel and acknowledge what went right and what worked well, so that you can reinforce those elements for the next time.
So when you’re done, don’t forget to complete these phrases:
- After having that conversation, I felt ____________________
- Things that I think went well include ____________________
- The turning point or “Aha” moment was when _____________
If you’ve had any of those “don’t-even-go-there,” negative experiences talking about end-of-life planning—or any other challenging topic—or you’ve been avoiding these discussions altogether, try out this interactive, fillable tool and breathe a little easier.
No matter how it goes, once you’ve tried it, I would love to hear from you! Please share your reflections on your conversations in the comments below so that we can learn from each other’s experiences.