Tips to Have a Meaningful End of Life Conversation

Nobody likes to talk about death. Even though it’s a natural part of life that every one of us will go through eventually, there’s something about discussing death that makes us hold our tongues. The thing is, having a meaningful end-of-life conversation with someone you love can be a great honor to them and a gift to yourself.

Though it can feel difficult, discussing end-of-life care and wishes is critical to helping your loved one finish out their days on Earth in a way that best suits their wishes. Here are some tips to help you get through the conversation productively.

Why end-of-life conversations are important

As much as we don’t want to admit that our parents, grandparents, spouses, and siblings will eventually pass away, it happens. Having a meaningful end-of-life conversation can prevent a host of unnecessary suffering, both for the dying person and their loved ones.

When someone is nearing the end of life, most of the time, there will be countless decisions to be made in a very short time, by people who are dealing with their whirlwind of emotions. A meaningful end-of-life conversation helps make those choices easier for the loved ones because it gives them direction when they need it most.

Get StartedYou think you have time, but you may not

We often put off having difficult end-of-life conversations thinking we have plenty of time to address these issues, but that’s not always the case. Too many people found this out during the Covid-19 pandemic when loved ones passed away quickly and unexpectedly from the virus.

None of us knows when our end date will be. It’s better to have these conversations before you need them than to not have a chance to have them at all. Better now than never.

End-of-life conversation guide

The talk you have with your loved one should include planning for the future, addressing “what ifs,” and honoring their lives. Some things you’ll need to discuss include:

Advance Directive – An advance directive clearly states what type of care someone wishes to receive if they are unable to make decisions for themselves. This can include:

  • Which life-prolonging methods the person would prefer to receive and under what circumstances
  • What types of pain management they are willing to receive
  • At what point life-prolonging measures should be ceased

Heath care proxy – Every person should appoint a healthcare proxy who will be in charge of making medical decisions for a person should they become unable to make those decisions independently. Not only does having a health care proxy give peace of mind to the dying person because they know their decisions will be made by someone they trust, but having it all in writing also protects the proxy against arguments from other family members.

Last wishes – Attempting to put together a funeral for someone you love is always painful, but doing it without being clear on “what they would have wanted” can make it tremendously more difficult. Many people choose to plan their funerals ahead of time down to the last detail, including what they’ll wear, what songs will be played, what verses will be read, etc. Doing so can be a real blessing for their loved ones.

Conversations starters for end-of-life discussion

Oftentimes, it’s not the conversation itself that’s difficult, but the anxiety around bringing up the subject that’s so hard. Take comfort in knowing that even if you’re the one to initiate the conversation, the dying person has probably already been thinking about the subjects on your mind. Most people at the end of their lives are acutely aware that their time on Earth is coming to a close. All you’re doing is opening a door to the conversation, which they may find as a relief.

There are several phrases you can use to begin the conversation, such as:

  • “I want to talk about the future, so I can make sure your wishes are respected.”
  • “I need to know how to take care of you in the future.”
  • “I have some questions about your wishes.”

Choose a time when the person is likely to be feeling best, such as in the morning, rather than late in the day when they might be tired. Have the conversation in a place that’s quiet and private, so you can listen without distractions. You may want to have other important family members involved, too.

End-of-life discussion questions

It’s good to have a list of topics on hand (you can use this blog as a guide) before you start the conversation, and a pen and paper to take notes. You’ll want to ask questions such as:

  • if you were diagnosed with an incurable illness, would you want to be kept alive by artificial means?
  • If you knew you were dying, would you want to be hooked up to life support to prolong your life?
  • Would you want a feeding tube or IV hydration if you were unable to feed yourself?
  • Would you want CPR if you knew it could injure you?
  • If you could not breathe on your own, would you want to be on an artificial breathing machine?
  • Would you rather die in your home?
  • How would you feel about living in a nursing home?
  • If you were in pain, would you prefer to be given pain medication, even if it meant it would make you less alert?
  • Who would you want to make important life and medical decisions for you if you become unable to choose for yourself?
  • Do you have ideas of what you’d like at your funeral, such as music, verses, poems, etc.?
  • Would you like to donate your organs?
  • Would you like to be buried, cremated, or donate your body to science?
  • What are the most important or interesting parts of your life to you?

A gift that gives back

When you have a meaningful end-of-life conversation with a loved one, you honor them by respecting their wishes, and you give yourself some peace of mind during a difficult time. Don’t be afraid to start the conversation. Your loved one will be glad you did.