A Guide to Meaningful Communication with Your Loved Ones
As we grow wiser and more experienced over the course of our lives, we often begin to ponder our final moments and the legacy we will leave for future generations.
Who will handle my medical decisions if I become incapacitated or lose my mental faculties? How will I be remembered? What will I endow to my family and loved ones? Will they handle their inheritance responsibly and in accordance with my wishes?
Considering our own mortality is often viewed as uncomfortable and heavy at best (as well as gloomy or even morbid), and is a topic that is too often avoided.
According to a recent survey by The Conversation Project, 90% of people say that talking with their loved ones about the end of life is important; but only 27% have actually done so. Similarly, a survey by the California HealthCare Foundation found that 82% of people say it’s important to put their wishes in writing; but only 23% have actually done so.
Many of us are unsure of how to facilitate the conversation about our end-of-life wishes – even if we understand the importance of having the discussion with our loved ones. So how can we accomplish this awkward yet vital goal?
What Matters Most to You at the End of Your Life?
The end-of-life conversation encompasses many topics, but all of the areas that need to be addressed revolve around one central theme: What matters most to me at the end of my life?
One way to organize your thoughts and questions for your family is by using a web diagram or flowchart. Start with this one underlying question in the middle and consider which broad topics (or “big questions”) fall underneath that question. As an example, you may start with the categories of family, health care, intangible values, special heirlooms or items of sentimental value, and finances.
Note: Your categories will vary based on how you choose to prioritize or organize your end-of-life considerations; but generally speaking, everyone ought to prepare for the immediate financial, medical and emotional decisions that arise as we reach the end.
Once you’ve laid out a few crucial areas that matter most to you, hone in on about 5-10 follow-up questions that relate to the category. As you dig further into these questions, you will inevitably come up with more specific questions that help to bring more clarity and precision to your final desires and goals.
To help you find the inspiration for your own set of conversation starter questions, let’s walk through a couple of sample “questionnaires” for the topics of health care and family considerations.
BIG QUESTION: If I become incapacitated or lose my mental faculties, who will make decisions on my behalf?
–Do I have a health care proxy? Who is listed as my agent?
–How have I communicated with my agent?
–Will this person feel comfortable asking questions and gathering information from your health care providers?
–Will this person ask for clarification if they don’t understand a situation?
–Will this person be immediately accessible and able to make a quick decision if the need arises?
–Will that person stand up for you if the doctors propose an action that contradicts their wishes?
–Will their decision-making align with your values?
BIG QUESTION: How will I overcome any contentious family issues that could be problematic?
–Have I clearly laid out my wishes in writing? Do I have a legally binding will?
–Is my will (and other estate planning documents) up-to-date and reflective of my desires?
–How will my family access the information they need to make decisions on my behalf?
–Are my files organized and easy to locate? Have I shared these documents with my loved ones in advance?
–If I have second or third marriages, how do I balance the responsibilities and bequests among my loved ones?
–Do my values conflict with that of particular family members?
–How do I determine which family member(s) will best carry out my legacy?
–What questions do I need to ask to determine if my values align with my decision makers?
Where Do I Even Start?
If you are finding it difficult to initiate the conversation – either due to logistical difficulties of getting everyone in the same room or due to anxiety or uncertainty – a third-party facilitator can be enormously valuable in sparking a meaningful end-of-life discussion with your loved ones. With an experienced mediator who helps to guide the direction of the meeting, you can focus on expressing your wishes in the most productive way possible.
The use of video conferencing tools or online vault storage can also be helpful in sparking a conversation with family members who are not geographically close to you – especially when connecting with grandchildren or younger, tech-savvy people. Utilize these technologies to bridge the gap and keep all of your loved ones in the know!
Lastly, for additional resources and conversation starters about end-of-life care, we recommend visiting www.theconversationproject.org. The website has plenty of ideas for broaching the conversation with your family about the weighty decisions that lie in your future.
As your reflections on your final moments and legacy are translated into written and informal communications with your loved ones, you will likely find that an uncomfortable, uncertain situation will be addressed in a manner that fulfills your wishes and builds a strong foundation for future generations.