End-of-Life Wishes: Joining a Conversation that Already Happens

Denise
My parents on my dad's 80th birthday. My parents on my dad's 80th birthday.


I suppose we all wish we were just talking about a singular caring conversation. One and done.

The idea of talking about end-of-life, about living arrangements and money and dying and funeral arrangements seems so, well, uncomfortable. Which is why we hope one conversation takes care of it.

The truth is we're talking about caring conversations. About discussions that begin and then continue and, honestly, don't really ever end, even with the end. When we die, we leave behind our legacy of stories, including the one about our last days; in essence, the story of how we died.

I have begun caring conversations with my parents and continue them as I can. When my mom told me about a friend's sad death, I asked what she would want that's different for herself. When my dad turned 80 two summers ago, I asked him how 80 feels. "Like crap," he said. I asked him why it feels like crap. "It's just harder," he said, "I don't have the energy I used to." I took note; this was the first time my dad talked about decline.

During dinner with my parents to celebrate my dad's 80th birthday, I asked them to share their best days ever. For my dad, his best day was the day his doctor told him he was cancer-free. My mom's best day, she said, is yet to come.

When my dad's cancer returned this past winter, we discussed his priorities. He wanted to time his treatment so that he felt his best for a long-planned trip to Bermuda. During each doctor's appointment, my dad said, "I want to go to Bermuda." My parents left for Bermuda this past Thursday. I took note again, though, as my dad looked exhausted the day they left. "I need a vacation," he said as he plopped into his recliner the morning of their departure.

We have a few caring conversations behind us. I know they want to live at home as long as possible. I know they expect that I will be the primary caregiver for them. (I'm an Expectant Caregiver.)

Several years ago, my parents put important paperwork in order. My oldest brother, the CPA, understands my parents' financial situation because he files their taxes. My parents also appointed him as their durable Power of Attorney for health care and finances.

During a visit with my parents and my sister and her husband this past winter, I saw an opening to begin discussions about my parents' burial wishes. They do not have plots yet but they do wish to be buried, rather than cremated, and to be next to each other. I shared my desire to be cremated* and to have an urn with my ashes placed near my parents' final resting place. My mom thought this sounded just great, that three of us would be together. I asked a few more questions about my mom's wishes; I learned that she's already recruited her favorite priest to say her funeral mass. Our conversation completed, we sat down to dinner, caught a little off guard at what we just discussed but pleased we just talked it out.

We have more caring conversations ahead of us. I want to continue to understand their wishes for their funerals--songs, prayers, readings. I also want to better understand their definitions of quality of life. Which activities and relationships do they want in their days? What brings meaning to their days?

These conversations will continue throughout their last years. How my parents define quality of life now may differ next year or in five years. I want to be sure to adjust the decisions we make to reflect the definitions they set.

The conversations can seem squeamish and awkward. I expect we think they don't want to talk about these things.

Or not. My parents are active in their local senior center. My dad emcees the center's theatrical events, which star the center's seniors. The seniors, all in their 80s and 90s, feature their talents in a few shows every year. I sit in the audience and enjoy the skits, which usually feature a bit of bawd and, interestingly enough, jokes about the inevitable side effects of old age, including dying.

I know they talk about. It's my goal to be a part of the conversation that already happens.

*I've begun to share my end-of-life wishes with my oldest niece, who meets my requests with loving curiosity and a just-tell-me-what-you-want-me-to-do-and-I'll-do-it attitude.

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