Don’t Wait to Talk About Death

The present, not the future, is the time for discussing important end-of-life related decisions with your loved ones.

Have you had The Conversation with your loved ones? It’s a painful notion, contemplating death at anytime, and it usually comes too late. Rather than being of sound body and mind, and letting our spouses, siblings, children, partners, and friends know what we prefer as we age or face death, we don’t. And then, sadly, it’s too late.

This happened in my own family. My mother, a firebrand liberal with a quick mind but a worn-out body wracked by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, had said for years that she preferred not to be resuscitated. But then, as her 89-year-old brain became oxygen-deprived, she wavered. She wanted CPR but not intubation, then both—but she did not want to be “plugged into a machine.” She spent a month or two in a hospital bed at the home where she had hoped to stay until her death. Close to the end, breathing became difficult, and she had little to no cognitive ability. She was bony and frail, restless, and unable to eat or drink. We moved her to an in-hospital hospice unit where she died about five days later.

My sister and I had understood that her death was imminent, but we, in retrospect, were in denial. After she took that last breath, we scrambled through the Christmas holiday to choose a funeral home and make arrangements. We hadn’t written her obituary nor set her affairs in order. We could put our hands on insurance policies, and we had added our names to her bank account, but her household full of poetry, scrapbooks, treasures, china, silver, jewelry, and art remained.

How I wish the three of us had gotten together as reasonable adults with someone to guide us through the intricacies leading to death and its tangled aftermath. Today, people are talking about such gut-wrenching issues—and a lot more—in places like the Death Cafe that William Palmer helps facilitate in a meeting room at the Chapel of the Chimes. Meanwhile, the elderly and terminally ill patients are asking their own doctors questions and setting their own course of care, with palliative care being one of the fastest-growing areas of health care.

All this is a good thing, and the reason why Andrea Firth writes about Death Cafes and palliative care in “Not to be Morbid, But Let’s Talk About Death.” It’s empowering to raise challenging end-of-life notions and determine an outcome before you have to. Do yourself a favor and have The Conversation today.