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Future Planning: An Act of Love

In my 20s, I attended eight funerals in seven years, experiencing the loss of an aunt, a great-aunt, an uncle, family friends, my grandfather, and the most difficult, my father. While most people my age had interview suits, I found myself in a funeral suit. Being exposed to all of this death at a pivotal time in my life shaped my view of the world. I wanted to enjoy my life while I was alive! I was trying to decide what to do as a “grown-up” while facing the upsetting reality that despite the tremendous and heartbreaking loss, life goes on. 

As parents, our primary goal is to shield our children from pain and hurt.. It’s natural to want to avoid talking about death. When my six-year-old asked last year what would happen if I died, I had to resist the urge to tell her not to worry. It’s natural to want to avoid these “tough” conversations. 

Determining how much to discuss regarding death with loved ones can be challenging. It’s an uncomfortable topic and as humans, we instinctively avoid discomfort. People will often express that it “feels so morbid” to discuss end-of-life plans and procedures. The pitfall with avoiding these conversations is that oftentimes, we don’t discuss them until we are forced to do so under duress, or when it’s already too late. 

Ultimately, having a plan for what will happen when you die, although uncomfortable, is one of those conversations that can ease the pressure once it’s happened. We cannot avoid death. We can work to be prepared so that when our loved one dies, we are not completely panicked, overwhelmed, and clueless.

Here are some suggestions on how to approach these difficult conversations with your loved ones:

Consider your emotions around this topic: What are you experiencing when you think of talking to others about death? Are you feeling a “pit” in your stomach? Maybe you are getting a headache? Feeling like you are about to cry? These are all natural responses to stress, sadness, and worry. T Understand that these emotions are normal.

What are your worries? No one wants to think about life without a loved one we care so deeply about.  Sometimes writing down a list of worries, fears, and questions can reduce your worries making it easier to navigate through the discomfort. 

“Plant the seed”: When bringing up difficult topics of conversation, it can be helpful to “plant the seed” of the topic so that others can start processing and letting it “germinate” in their minds. This can help them emotionally prepare to talk about the subject. Try saying something like “Let’s set aside some time to talk about estate planning, advanced directives, wills, and finances. I know this is uncomfortable, but it’s important. When works for you?” 

Consider the emotions of others around this topic: People can quickly become defensive, argumentative, or “cagey” when these topics are brought up. It’s important to remain calm, speak softly, and continue the conversation despite accusatory statements, frustrations, or irritation. If the conversation becomes extremely heated, be sure to validate emotions, take a break, and set a time to resume the conversation. Encourage your loved one to explore what their concerns are about this conversation and assure them that you have their best interests at heart. 

Think about how you will feel after the discussion: It’s important to remind ourselves of the relief that we will feel once the difficult task has been accomplished. These conversations will likely be ongoing, especially with parents or partners, however, once the conversation has been initiated, it’s easier moving forward to continue the conversation. 

It’s not going away: The proverbial “pink elephant” will be in the room until you discuss it. While we might temporarily push these matters aside, they persist until we confront them.

 Future planning is likely something that your loved ones want to discuss but may also be feeling hesitant to bring up. 

It can build more intimacy: Sharing your concerns, wishes, fears, and desires for yourself and your loved ones can bring you closer to each other. These discussions provide the opportunity to learn more about each other and deepen your connection and comfort. 

No one wants to think about dying. It’s one of those “adulting” things that is inevitable. Ideally, you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to have an open, honest conversation when there is no pressure to do so. Think of this as a way to demonstrate to your loved ones that you care about their wishes and want to ease the pain of potential loss.

“Unable are the loved to die, for love is immortality…” – Emily Dickinson

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