Hard Conversations: How to Discuss End of Life Wishes
One of my favorite worship songs is “In Christ Alone,” which has the lyrics: “No guilt in life, no fear in death, This is the power of Christ in me; From life's first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.”
I know Jesus controls my destiny and it is up to Him when I take my final breath, which is why I have requested my family have this song played during my funeral service.
That sentence may have made you uncomfortable. In general, we do not like talking about death or what will happen when our loved ones die.
But death is a fact of life.
We know that it is coming, so rather than avoid discussing our end of life wishes, we should have the hard conversation while we are able. Unfortunately, due to the hard nature of this conversation, it isn’t happening.
AARP reports, “Ninety percent of people think it is important to talk about end-of-life wishes with their loved ones, but only 27 percent have done so, according to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services. [And] One in 5 respondents to a 2018 survey by the Conversation Project, which works to promote greater discussion of end-of-life-care, said they've avoided the subject out of worry about upsetting their loved ones.”
When we resist having the hard end of life wishes conversation, we risk our loved ones being unable to have their wishes honored.
Pew Trusts claims, “According to one study, some 70 percent of people over the age of 60 who were in an inpatient setting and had to make a decision about treatment during the last week of life were physically unable to communicate their wishes to family or clinicians.”
We probably all know of someone who died suddenly or someone who died without a will and how much more it complicated the grieving process for the family.
While God is ultimately in control, there are some things we can do to make things easier for our loved ones. Having this conversation and ensuring your loved ones’ requests are met is one more opportunity we have to care for them.
Here are some suggestions to guide you.
Choose the Right Setting
Time and place matters – especially with a conversation this heavy. It should be in a private, quiet setting.
I had this conversation with my own grandma just a few months back when I went down to visit my family. She is my last living grandparent and probably the one that I was closest to, but she had a relapse of cancer just last year.
As uncomfortable (and heartbreaking) as it was to have this conversation with her, we knew it needed to happen in case I didn’t get to visit her again. So, she invited me over for coffee. I brought my Bible and my notepad, and we discussed all the necessary elements.
When I was with her, it was just us chatting in her quiet home and figuring things out together. In the same way, you should choose a time when the individual will be comfortable rather than rushed.
Know What You Want to Ask
Before you begin the conversation, it’s wise to know what questions you want to ask.
Again, it’s a hard conversation. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself or others in the conversation.
Identify the questions that you deem most important.
Here are some common questions you may want answered:
- Do you have a will? Is it up to date?
- Is the will detailed, such as detailing which family members are bequeathed certain mementos?
- Are your beneficiaries up to date in your policies?
- Do you have your financial information in order and in one place?
- Are your financial affairs in order?
- If you are unable to make decisions, have you named someone to make decisions on your behalf?
- Who do you want to be involved in your care and who do you not want involved?
- Is there anything you want or do not want at the end of your life (if we have the ability to do so)?
- What would you like your funeral to look like?
- Are there any special verses or worship songs you’d like played during a funeral service? Is there someone you’d like to officiate at your funeral?
Include the Right People
This conversation should be an intimate one.
Typically, it involves immediate family members only. However, you may need additional help.
Focus on the Family explains, “Some families sometimes find it easier to entreat a third party to be present when discussing these issues: a trusted friend, a pastor, a doctor, an elder-care attorney or even a mediator, especially if there are rough spots in the relationship between parents and children or siblings.”
When you have this conversation, remember that this is an opportunity for you to love and honor your loved one. That means listening well.
It doesn’t mean pushing your opinions or wishes on to them. This is not a debate.
If your loved one makes a request that shocks you, try not to react negatively. Ask for an explanation and listen and make an effort to understand.
Prepare to Continue the Discussion
This will likely not be a one-time conversation. You will most likely have to return to end of life discussions multiple times before you get answers to all your questions.
If this is how the conversation goes for you, then that’s okay. It is a hard conversation and would be overwhelming to try to conquer it all in one sitting.
A Way to Minister
Think of having this conversation and honoring your loved one’s wishes as a way to minister here on Earth.
Focus on the Family explains, “In every era, Christians have been witnesses for Jesus in the midst of nonbelieving communities – through acts of courage, charity and mercy. Believers recognize the biblical admonition to step up and care for their vulnerable neighbors, especially those on the edge of death. Indeed, one of the best ways to learn the value of life and living it to the fullest is by immersing yourself in another’s journey at the end.”