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Article by Sarah Hamilton-Walker | 22nd September 2018

Deathly Silence

How do you start a conversation about death with a loved one?

People find death a difficult topic to discuss and it can bring up a lot of feelings of anxiety, fear, awkwardness or sadness. So it’s no surprise, as a culture, we prefer to pretend that it’s not going to happen. But it’s incredibly important for all generations to talk about death – ahead of time – so that feelings can be faced and processed, and any final wishes shared.
According to a recent survey by Independent Age, which offers advice and support for older people, almost half of the sandwich generation (those responsible for bringing up their children and caring for their own parents), don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents about death. For some, alcohol, weight, personal finances and sex were cited as easier topics to discuss than death. To help, here are some tips on how to broach this taboo topic.

Don’t avoid the subject…

When it comes to difficult conversations, it’s easy to just say nothing but that’s rarely the answer. Make sure you have the conversation, or you could end up in a situation where your parents can’t make a decision for themselves but you’re unsure of what they would have wanted.
If your parent was unable to communicate, would you know what treatment they would or wouldn’t want at the end of their life? Do you know what music they would want at their funeral? There will always be reasons not to talk about it but knowing their wishes can give you both great peace of mind.

…But be sensitive

Of course, it can be upsetting to talk about your own death or the death of someone you love. Think about how you’re going to introduce the conversation. You might want to prepare them in advance by saying something like: “I realised that if you became ill I wouldn’t know what you wanted. Can we talk about that? When would be a good time?” Let them feel in control of communicating their wishes and don’t push them towards a decision. One way of introducing a conversation could be to use triggers – for example, talk about a leaflet on the subject, a TV plotline you’ve both watched, a newspaper article or an item on the news.

Make a list

Whether it’s a shopping list, a to-do list or your bucket list, writing lists can help us to feel in control. So, why not try to write down everything you need to discuss. Have a look online for useful checklists and templates to help you, such as a funeral-planning template, which can help you think through the different options available.

Know the options

Many people aren’t aware of the practical things that need to be done to plan for life’s eventualities. For example, you’ve probably heard of lasting power of attorney, but did you know there are two types? One allows a trusted person to help you make decisions about financial matters or make them on your behalf if you can’t; the other covers decisions about health, care and welfare. One type won’t cover all decisions. And have you heard of an advance statement? This document lets someone record their preferences for how they’d want to be cared for. It can include things like where they would want to live at the end of their life, and how they like to spend their time, not just their preferences for medical treatment.

Remember, it’s never too early to start planning

For some, arranging things after a parent’s death makes them realise how important it is to plan for their own death, perhaps for the sake of their children or partner. Perhaps you could agree to make your plans together which might make the conversation easier. Have you made a will, planned your funeral, and documented your wishes for the future?

• For more advice on what to talk about before someone dies, or help on living with grief and loss, visit www.independentage.org/we-need-to-talk-about-death

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