Tips for Talking With Your Loved Ones About the End of Life

How do we go about engaging in these very important conversations when we meet resistance from those we most need to listen and talk with us? Here are some suggestions for "talking the talk" and breaking through that resistance.
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Recently there has been a big push to get people to start talking with their family members and other loved ones about their wishes for the last days of their lives. Baby Boomers seem to be embracing this suggestion and are beginning to make plans for later life and formulate their own ideas about what constitutes a "good" ending to this life.

But some of us are running into obstacles when it comes time to communicate our thoughts and wishes with our loved ones. One woman told me she has been struggling to talk with her children about her end-of-life plans -- they are disinterested and have refused to listen to her. Another woman has tried unsuccessfully to talk with her mother, who doesn't have an advance directive, about making her own wishes known so that her children can arrange care for her in the future.

These two stories illustrate just how difficult inter-generational conversations can be about the end of life. Younger people are not concerned with the subject because it seems so far away from them -- it's not yet part of their consciousness. And older folks, from the Traditional Generation, are not used to talking about feelings or expressing their personal desires, in addition to being uncomfortable with the idea of death as it rapidly approaches.

So how do we go about engaging in these very important conversations when we meet resistance from those we most need to listen and talk with us? Here are some suggestions for "talking the talk" and breaking through that resistance:

Complete your own advance directive first. Paul Malley, president of Aging With Dignity, in his interview for this year's Death Expo, suggests that you fill out your own living will document (such as Five Wishes) before you try to talk with others about the end of life. Going through the process of answering difficult questions about your own wishes will help you clarify what's most important to you and organize your thoughts.

Do your homework. Spend a little time on websites that deal with making your end-of-life wishes known, such as and Research the options for end-of-life care so that you are well informed before you start a conversation.

Choose the right time for a conversation. According to Paul Malley, a good time to bring up the subject could be during a relaxed family gathering where most of your significant loved ones are present, such as following a holiday dinner or celebration. For example, some people have successfully tied in an end-of-life conversation as part of their Thanksgiving celebration -- naming what they are grateful for and "what really matters" to them at the end-of-life.

Start with a great introduction. Setting the stage well for this conversation can make all the difference in the success you achieve. When talking with elderly parents, begin by asking them to tell the story of when one of their own parents died. They will enjoy talking about the past and will often provide you with some great material for your conversation. For example, "So you were always disappointed that Grandma died all alone in the hospital. What would you like to be different for you when you reach that time?" If you are talking with younger loved ones, The Conversation Project recommends that you begin by saying, "I need to think about the future. Will you help me?"

Bring extra copies of the advance directive. Paul Malley suggests that you bring along several blank copies of the document you are using and invite your family member to complete it with you. Five Wishes is very easy to use for people of all ages and could be completed together as a family "group activity," or you can find many other templates for advance directives online.

Don't wait. The caveat for each of us is that NOW is the best time to do end-of-planning and have conversations about it with our loved ones. There are no guarantees in life and the sooner you make your wishes known for your own end of life, the sooner you will experience greater peace of mind about the future.

So get started today by doing some research, making a list of who you need to talk to, and thinking about the best opportunities you will have to begin the conversation. Remember that your loved ones love you and want you to be happy, so approach them in that spirit -- ask for their help and support.

For more ideas on planning for the end-of-life you might enjoy listening to interviews at the Death Expo -- a free online educational event in November 2014. Just go to to learn more and register. When you sign up you'll receive the End-of-Life Preparedness Assessment to help you determine what you need to learn to be ready for the end-of-life.

About the Author:

(Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician and the author of the award-winning book "What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying." She is a frequent keynote speaker and radio show guest whose profound teachings have helped many find their way through the difficult times of life. Learn more about her work at

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