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How to Talk to Your Parents about Death and Dying

The reality of watching our parents age is difficult to process and accept. Learn how to approach difficult conversations about death and dying here.

The reality of watching our parents age is difficult to process and accept. That strong, emotional bond and connection between child and parent stems back to the very beginnings of our being. It makes sense, then, that the shift taking place as we witness them beginning to need us more than we need them can be a hard transition. For both sides. 

A big part of the process includes dealing with important legal matters that must be addressed. And while it’s uncomfortable, it really is essential that at some point, you sit down and talk about death and dying with your parents. We recommend you do it now, before it’s too late. 

Not sure what you need to discuss? You should address subjects like how they will want their estate managed, and advance care planning, and who they’ll want to make decisions for them when the time comes. This way, you’ll be confident you know what their wishes are. And you’ll definitely have a much better idea of how you can fulfill those wishes to honor your parents’ legacy. 

Even if you know it’s important to talk about these things, we understand it can be a bit daunting. It’s a difficult-to-navigate conversation on your own. To help, we’ve outlined how to talk to your parents about death and dying here. 

Read on, as we’ll cover everything you need to know, including: 

The Importance of Discussing Death and Dying with Your Parents

While it’s something we’ll all experience at some point, death is never easy. And preparing for it can be even more difficult. But even though it’s, we encourage you to have these tough conversations. It’s the only way you can make sure you understand your parents’ wishes, because from medical to financial, a lot of decisions will need to be made. End-of-Life care is an important part of the discussion.

What is End-Of-Life Care? 

End-of-Life care is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the type of care you’d want as you reach the stage known as End-of-Life. While it’s often a discussion for those suffering from a terminal condition, it can also refer to the processes you want even after you pass, including your last wishes and plans for what happens to your body post-mortem.

It can feel odd to have these kinds of conversations with your parents. Yet establishing and beginning to understand how they want to navigate the death process is very important - not only for them, but also for you and other family members. It’s easiest if everyone is on the proverbial same page when the time comes.   

How to Prepare for the Talk

Preparing for the talk with your parents can help you feel a bit more settled as you walk into the conversation. Consider the following before you meet. 

  • Do it when they’re still healthy - If possible, have the conversation while everyone is still healthy.

  • Begin looking at and thinking about things before the talk - Will a parent move in with you? A sibling? An independent or assisted living facility?

  • Enlist the help of your siblings - Working together will be much easier than fighting every step of the way. If at all possible, try to get your siblings to agree and support each other. 

  • Deal with the drama - We know, it can be hard, or even impossible, but try to have any awkward conversations beforehand to address unresolved conflicts.

How to Talk to Your Parents about Death and Dying

Don’t feel badly if you’re not sure how to broach the subject with your parents - that’s a common feeling. How you start the conversation largely depends on personality. Both yours and theirs. You want to try to ensure they don’t feel threatened or uncomfortable with the fact that you want to talk about their eventual (or perhaps the beginning of their) decline. Here are some tips on how to do so and what to ask, tactfully and comprehensively.

  • Be frank: Approaching a parent with discussions of death and dying should be done with frankness, but it won’t hurt to let them know that the conversation scares you too. Be honest, and let them know you think it’s time to start talking about the future. 

  • Assess the current situation: Chances are, if your parents have already established any sort of Estate Planning, they’ll be more comfortable having the conversation. But if they haven’t done anything yet, they may seem confused about why you’re approaching them. See what they’ve already prepared, and go from there.   

  • Start slow: If it’s becoming clear that your parents haven’t planned at all, it might be best to start with the idea. You don’t need to have a full-on conversation the first time you talk. Tread lightly. Though death and dying itself isn’t typically a light and airy topic, you can ease into it casually by mentioning that you’ve been thinking about (or have recently started) your own Estate Planning - let this be a springboard for deeper conversations. 

Questions to Ask

While there are endless topics to discuss when it comes to Estate Planning and End-of-Life issues, a few are more pressing. You’ll need to delve into several different issues to truly understand what your parents’ wishes are. Some important questions to ask could be: 

Do You Have a Will?

What to cover: Start with the basics. Do your parents have a Will? If the answer is no, now is the time to begin the process of creating one. If they do have one, you should know where it’s located and some of its basics, such as who they appointed Executor. 

How to ask: It can be easy to start this conversation. Simply ask your parents something like: “Mom, I was just curious...do you and Dad have a Will? I want to be prepared when the time comes...I know this can be hard to talk about, but I think it’s important we understand what you want.” 

What to do now: If your parents have not created a Will (or Trust), encourage them to do so. Using a trusted online service like Trust & Will means the process will be simple and surprisingly cost-effective. The best part? Once it’s done, it offers an incredible sense of peace of mind on both sides. 

What if they’ve already set up any portion of their Estate Plan? If they’re comfortable, it would be worth reviewing it together, so everybody is on the same page. 

Do You Have Authorized Users Set Up?

What to cover: Bank accounts and investments should have authorized users established so someone can easily access them if needed. Should a parent become incapacitated, there are several ways to ensure their money isn’t tied up. A co-owner or Power of Attorney (POA) can be established to simplify the process if someone needs to access accounts for any reason. 

How to ask: Be straightforward and rational about it. Point out that you’re not trying to pry, but you want to be prepared. Start with: “Dad, I don’t want to overstep here, and I’m certainly not implying it should be me, but have you set up authorized users on your accounts? It would be a good idea to think about doing so, just in case.”

What to do now: If they do have authorized users set up, great! You should note who they’ve appointed, and make sure you have current contact information (if that person isn’t you). If they don’t have this set up, suggest they do so. Then, contact each financial institution to ask what their process is to add authorized users. Some may have their own form that’s required, and some may require in-person visits. 

Do You Have a POA?

What to cover: Power of Attorney (POA) allows someone to make financial, business and/or legal decisions on your behalf. Without this important part of an Estate Plan being established, lengthy and costly proceedings can be drawn out in court while someone is appointed to make decisions for your parents. 

How to ask: Because it deals with finances and other personal information that’s often kept private, this can be a sensitive subject. By keeping it dry and to the point, you can make it a little less awkward. Try something along the lines of: “Dad, I know you’ve always had your affairs in order. You taught us to do the same! I was thinking we could sit down soon and talk about whether or not you have a POA set up.”

What to do now: It’s important to establish who should be POA while your parents are still healthy and able-thinking. Because the POA will be making important decisions while they’re still living, your parents should choose someone they trust to make the right decisions. It’s a good idea to also designate a back-up as well, in case something happens to the originally-named POA. 


Have You Set Up Your Advance Healthcare Directive?

What to cover: Advance Healthcare Directives (also known as Living Wills) are extremely important. This document helps you understand the basics in terms of medical interventions and life-sustaining measures your parents would (or perhaps more importantly, would NOT) want taken. 

How to ask: Make sure they know this weighs heavily on you. Start by letting them know it would be incredibly difficult to try and guess what they would want should they become incapacitated and unable to express their wishes. Let them know: “Mom, I’d really like to make sure I understand what you would want if anything happens to you. It would be so hard for me to try and make decisions without us having clear direction from you. Do you think you’d be able to set up an Advance Healthcare Directive? It would really give us peace of mind.”

What to do now: If they haven’t already set one up, Advance Healthcare Directives are easy to put in place. It allows your parents to make their wishes known, so the appropriate medical interventions can be put in place, without question, should the time come that difficult decisions need to be made. 

Documenting Your Parents’ Wishes

A lot of the conversations you’ll have with your parents about death and dying will need to be documented. In order for you to ensure their requests are officially recognized, things must be official. 

Pulling out a pen and paper on your first chat may be a bit overwhelming (for them and you!), but you should pay attention to what they’re telling you. And keep in mind that it’s fairly common when talking about a difficult topic to not be very specific in the beginning. You may hear your parents say something like “I want it to be peaceful,” which may be accurate, but is also very generic and provides no real direction. 

Take your time, and give them theirs. You may need to go through a few different scenarios before your parents can identify and express what something like “peaceful” means to them. Once you’re clear, it’s time to draw up legally binding official documents. You’ll want to make sure that your parents have established a POA, set authorized users on financial accounts and created a Will that includes their Advance Directives. They can do all of this on their own, or you can help them with parts, like creating a Will

You can always go the traditional (but much more expensive) route and refer to an Estate Planning attorney for legal support. Or, you can go through the steps with a trusted online company with legal experts, like Trust & Will

Being Prepared for the Death of a Parent

No matter how hard we try, we’re never really prepared for the death of a parent. However, knowing that your parents’ wishes regarding their estate, assets and End-of-Life medical care are already determined can make things much easier.  

Reach out to Trust & Will today to learn more about setting up your parents with the Estate Planning they need, so you can all enjoy the time you have together with a little less stress.