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    Straight Talk: Discussing Death and Dying with Your Loved Ones

    I’ll be honest, I had never given death much thought until my dad was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2017. There was no treatment to pursue, so he went on hospice and I moved back in with my parents to help get him through the process of dying. The next five months were some of the hardest my family has ever experienced. Cancer is beyond tough, and tending to a family member who is dying from it is a different kind of battle.

    My dad was able to approach his own death with a level of grace and self-awareness that helped the rest of the family come to terms with it. When things seemed grim, he’d chime in singing his favorite song for the time—Staying Alive by the Bee Gees.

    During this time, my dad and I were able to have the big conversations and say the things that often go unsaid for a lifetime. I asked him if he was scared to die, and he said in all truthfulness that he wasn’t—that statement still comforts me today. Ultimately, my dad passed away in his bed, holding my mom’s hand.

    The death of a parent or close family member brings about countless major and subtle shifts in the lives of their surviving loved ones. One change my family experienced was a newfound level of comfort when it comes to having hard conversations around death and dying.

    Being able to ask questions, express fears, and discuss plans and final wishes about your own death with family members may seem like an odd—even morbid—accomplishment, but it has meant a lot to my family.

    For example, my 81-year-old grandmother recently came to my mom worrying about the details of where she was going to be buried. She’s not in any hurry to get into the grave, but she wanted to be able to picture where she would be laid to rest. She and my mom did some shopping around, found a perfect burial site in an eco-friendly memorial park, and bought a family plot.

    I could actually see the relief and sense of peace on my grandma’s face after we made the purchase. Had she not felt comfortable coming to my mom with an open conversation about plans for her transition, it’s likely that my grandma wouldn’t have been able to lay her worries to rest before her final day.

    In this blog post, I’d like to share some lessons I’ve learned about the importance of talking about death and dying with your loved ones.

    Planning a Peaceful Transition

    According to WhatsYourGrief, an online resource that helps individuals through the grieving process, the number one source of conflict following the death of a family member is fighting over material possessions:

    “In many instances, people do not discuss their end-of-life wishes and estate plans,” their family psychology experts write. “This doesn’t always cause a problem. However, if the estate turns out to be surprising or unfair, those who are surprised or left out may interpret their loved one’s decisions as a statement of love or value (whether it is rational or not). Worse, it may cause confusion, questioning, resentment, or bitterness among surviving family members. Unfortunately, the only person who can explain the decision is gone and so people are left to try to make sense of things on their own.”

    Sometimes, conversations around death are about pure logistics. Talking about what you want done with your worldly affairs can be key to minimizing family conflict and stress after you pass. Planning your estate now can help ensure a peaceful transition of your wealth and property after you pass—which means your loved ones won’t need to worry about fighting over material possessions while they’re going through the grieving process.

    Expressing End-of-Life Wishes and Requests

    Not being comfortable talking about death is one of the most common reasons why final wishes and requests go unfulfilled. Many of us simply don’t know how to communicate what we want, or are too uncomfortable with the topic to bring it up at all. Consider the following statistics:

    • Just 13% of adults say they’ve let a close friend or family member know where they want to be when they die (rising to only 15% among seniors).
    • Only 8% of people have put in place medical and/or emotional support for the end of their lives (dropping to 6% among seniors).
    • Only 50% of survey respondents reported telling anybody whether they would like to be buried or cremated and only 37% had made a will.

    My dad knew that the last months of his life were incredibly difficult for our family. Although being there with him at the end was a blessing, it’s hard witnessing someone you love so much succumb to cancer.

    My dad wanted to give us all a break from heartache and hard times after he passed, so he had two final requests. He wanted us to hold a life celebration instead of a funeral, and he told my mom, sister, and me to use some of the money from his life insurance policy to go on vacation. The year after he died, we all took trips to help heal the wounds of his passing. You can read more about my journey here.

    Regardless of what your wishes are for your end-of-life and death, having an open discussion about it with your loved ones is the best way to ensure that your final requests will be seen to.

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    Amanda Harr

    A graduate of the Plan II Honors program at UT Austin, Amanda Harr is the Content Manager for SWBC. A clever wordsmith who appreciates artful persuasion and authenticity in writing, Amanda uses a structured creative process to craft marketing strategies, develop communications solutions, and deliver top-notch content.

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