Preparing for Conversations about Death

by Janice Wallace

Mary had been through a lot in the last month, heart surgery a pressure sore and a long stay in a nursing home.  The great news was that she wasend of life issues, elderly, death steadily improving.  I was shocked during my next visit when she said. “I won’t renew my symphony subscription; I’ll be dead before the next season.”  It was really hard to hear her bring up death when I felt she was on the mend.

Opportunities to discuss death during parent care can be rare.  As a society, we spend a lot of time pretending that death doesn’t exist. If you are closed to the discussion, the opportunity may pass by and never return.  It’s hard to be ready but you can lay the groundwork getting more comfortable with strong emotions, yours and your parent.

When your parent opens the topic of death, the conversation may have one or many purposes.  You will not know the purpose unless you are able to stay curious. Conversations about death fall into three main categories:

  • Practical
  • Emotional support seeking
  • Spiritual

During practical discussions, you and parent discuss and resolve practical issues. What type of service does your parent want?  Will she be cremated?  Where does she keep important papers? While the subject matter is practical, it can be very emotional to discuss these parent care details.

Emotional support seeking discussions are times when your parent shares fears about what will happen.  These can be difficult parent care conversations to navigate.  It can be difficult to know what your parent wants.  Is it optimism, reassurance or total honesty? Should she be hopeful? Will she suffer before death?  Will you be ok after your parent is dead?

Spiritual discussions center around your parent’s beliefs about death. Your parent’s life may be reviewing their life and coming to peace with it.  She may share regret over unachieved goals or need to resolve old problems.

Here are five ways to prepare and participate in a parent care end of life discussion.

  1. Acknowledge that this is an important discussion and that you both may get emotional.  Agree to keep talking even when strong emotions come up.
  2. Find or create a space where you can have a private discussion.
  3. Be curious.  Ask questions to understand what type of conversation you are having practical, emotional support seeking or spiritual?
  4. Ask more questions to clarify anything you don’t understand.
  5. Listen closely and give your parent the time to express herself clearly.
  6. Take the opportunity to tell your parent what she means to you; don’t save your appreciation for the eulogy.

What matters most during tough conversations about death is offering your parent an open and listening heart.  Have you struggled with end of life parent care conversations?  What tips would you share with others?

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2 Responses

  1. I found this interesting - of course the death-denying culture is very much aligned with the medicalisation of death. In cultures where there is little medical intervention or professionalisation, death is much more a day to day part of life and there is no discomfort in discussing it. Found other interesting stuff on here and shall enjoy following your blog. I write about elderly care but am UK based so it is useful for me to have this US perspective.
  2. Hi Juliana, Thanks for your comments linking death denying and our medical system. Even feeling like a knowledgeable medical consumer myself, I found myself being shocked when being told that medicine could not fix what was happening to a relative and that she would die. It made me realize how deeply ingrained the belief was. Janice