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Bob is a client and was recently in our office to discuss a business issue. But before he left, he had one last (and very important) question he wanted to ask. He wanted to know, “How do I get my parents, who are aging and having health issues, to talk about the dreaded “D” word…DEATH?”

Not the first time we have heard this…in fact it is one of the most common questions we get asked. Often times parents don’t want to talk about it because it starts to “feel too real” when they start talking about it. Another common reason is that they don’t have a very solid plan in place for what would happen in case they died. Whatever the reason, it needs to be talked about well before it happens.

It just so happened that I had just read an article by Amy Florian on this very topic. Amy is the CEO of Corgenius. She combines neuroscience and psychology to help folks through all the losses and transitions of life. Amy points out that our society has moved past most of our previously taboo subjects. Subjects such as sex, for instance, used to be a major taboo but isn’t any longer, at least in the public arena. Money is in a similar category. It’s the topic of endless conversations, speculation and media coverage.

But there’s another word that ranks right up there with the other taboo topics…DEATH. Do a quick test for yourself. When you hear the word, does it send chills down your back or conjure up bad memories? If you’re like most of us, it does. It has been a taboo word more recently than ever before.

Our parents and their parents talked about it freely…mainly because it was happening all around them and it was much more of a normal occurrence in their lives. Interestingly, death used to be familiar. In times past, generations of families lived together or close by. When elders got sick, the family cared for them at home. When elders died, family members lovingly washed and clothed the body, and the wake occurred in the living room before the body was carried in a handmade casket to be buried in the local church cemetery. Children were exposed to death as a natural and normal part of life as the entire clan gathered to remember the one who died.

As time went on, families began to scatter, and both spouses started working. With no full-time caregivers at home, old and sick elders were cared for in nursing homes. Medical technology prolonged life, but often required hospitalization, even as it seemingly conquered or at least forestalled death. Once death did occur, care of the body was shifted to funeral home personnel who quietly performed their duties out of sight. In other words, we outsourced death.

But today, most people recoil at the thought of it. And there are no key spokespersons giving information and advice about the process or how to deal with it effectively. Death education is not a part of school (or any other) curriculum and the grieving process is widely misunderstood.

This was a great opportunity for me to share some of Amy’s thoughts with Bob and give him a different perspective on the issue. So when Bob brought up the topic, I completely understood where he was coming from…no one wants to talk about it. But we have to…it is a part of life and the more comfortable we can get with talking about it, the better prepared we can be when it rears its ugly head.

Bob and I both agreed that public perception has shifted. Rather than an expected, natural part of normal life, death is perceived as an unexpected, unnatural interruption of normal life. The last taboo, then, is not sex or money, it is death.

I told Bob that Amy had identified several ways to initiate conversations or get people to think about having a plan for when death comes. Here are just two of her ideas…

  • Re-frame the conversation.Tell them you’d like to help them maintain as much control of their lives as possible right until the end, and at the same time, reduce the burden on their family.  In other words, tell them having an Estate Strategy will give them the tools that allow them to call the shots.
  • Familiarize them with these two websites to help initiate and guide discussions
    • The Conversation Project: This site provides a practical, useful Starter Kit plus tools to prompt conversations, ask questions, and clarify desires. It also includes a Starter Kit for families affected by dementia.
    • Prepare For Your Care: An easy-to-understand website which includes illustrative videos and helpful knowledge to aid the decision-making process.

Bob stayed around and we reviewed the information and videos on these sites. Now he feels much more armed and prepared to break through the taboo of talking about death. And we developed a specific plan about “when” and “how” he was going to approach his father. Bob now has a much greater sense of direction for how to approach his dad and he has a plan.

If you are facing a similar issue, I would encourage you to check out these resources (and others) and develop a plan. If you need some help getting this pulled together and developing an approach for your parents, give us a call…we’d be happy to have a discussion with you and help you, like Bob, develop a plan to make it happen.

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