Talking to a Loved One About Their Final Wishes

A sad but an unavoidable fact of life is that none of us will live forever. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to discuss your final wishes with your family and even more challenging to start the conversation with an ill or elderly loved one.

Many people are uncomfortable broaching the subject of death, but everyone should think about how they want to be remembered and feel comfortable sharing those preferences with loved ones. Planning a funeral or memorial service and burial may seem morbid, but it can give people a sense of control over their destiny. It also relieves families from the pressure of making tough decisions when the end comes. Here are some ways to help you navigate this conversation when the time comes.

Make Your List

As you enter into this conversation, you’ll want to be prepared with a list of questions that you would like the answers to. Understand that not all of these questions will be answered at the end of the conversation, and that’s ok. For some, this conversation may be overwhelming and you’ll need to sit down and talk more than once. Here are some of the bigger questions that you may want to ask:

  • Do they have a funeral plan?
  • Where can you find important documents such as their funeral plan, will, or life insurance policy?
  • Do they have any provisions made for funeral costs?
  • What are their preferences for end-of-life care?

Once you’ve found the answers to those questions, or you decide to wait until another day, these may help you get the conversation rolling!

  • What funeral home would you like us to use?
  • Who would you like as pallbearers?
  • Who would you like to be a eulogy speaker?
  • Any special music to be played or sung at the service?
  • Types of flowers?
  • Favorite charities so that people can make a donation in your name.
  • What type of service would they like? A traditional church service, informal celebration of life, or a memorial service at their golf club?

Do More Listening Than Talking

Ask open-end questions. This approach encourages a free-flowing conversation instead of “yes” or “no” answers that will restrict your understanding of their true wishes. Demonstrate that you value their preferences and concerns by spending most of the time listening (and taking notes) instead of rushing through the items and questions that you want to talk about. 

Make certain that they know that their ideas are respected. If they are reluctant to talk, be sure to talk to friends and family to help you make decisions easier. Also be sure to consider their personality, beliefs, and passions for the funeral service.

Put the Conversation in Context

The conversation may lead to a discussion about funeral experiences that you and your loved one have had in the past. You may talk about attending a funeral together and the elements that you liked and disliked about that service.

Pay attention to the items that they liked and make a note of things that they would like to include in their own plans as well as things that they want to avoid. If they have ever planned a funeral for someone else, that experience can also provide topics for discussion. It can also reinforce a key goal of your conversation which is to ease the funeral planning process so that family members can focus on spending time with one another.

Adjust the Discussion as Needed

You should enter into the conversation about end-of-life issues with ideas about what you would like to discuss, however it is important to adjust the talk as the topics come up. These other subjects can lead to important discoveries that may help to provide an even more satisfying experience.

This conversation should be purposeful but remember to enjoy the time that you are spending sharing stories with your loved one. You may learn new things about one another that might not have had an opportunity to discuss otherwise.

Keep an Ongoing Dialogue

It is unlikely that you will get all of your questions answered and plans put in place during a single conversation and that’s OK! Approach it as the first of many talks to help you learn more about your loved one, their life, and the things that they value the most.

Even if you feel as though you’ve covered most of the issues that you wanted to address, it’s still a great idea to check in periodically to make sure that your loved one is comfortable with the plans in place. It will also reassure them that plans can be changed later if they realize that their preferences have shifted.

While there is no right or wrong time to have an end-of-life conversation, it is important that you do take the time to discuss with your loved one what their desires are. This will help you make the best decisions calmly and armed with all of the information that you need to ensure their final send-off is one that they would have wanted!