COVID Has Us Thinking About Death. Here's How to Talk About It.
Starting the conversation with your family about their medical wishes and end-of-life plans can be tough. But it's crucial.by Gretchen Brown
A pandemic has this way of making us wrestle with our own mortality.
It pushes us to think about the grim stuff: Any of us could get sick. Any of us could die.
Admitting that fact doesn't doom you to an early death — even if it might feel like it. Instead, it creates an opportunity to talk with your family about the just-in-cases: what they'd want if they fell ill, became incapacitated or died.
"These are things that are important to talk about before a crisis. And most people do not do that," said Lara Krawchuk, a therapist and end-of-life expert.
"As an oncology social worker, I see the mistake of not talking about it, because people are forced to make these decisions when they're really upset."
Talking about death when no one's dying can feel awkward, especially if you think your parents are too young to have to prepare for it. But, practically speaking, it's never too early to start the conversation.
Remember what you — and your parents — have to lose
It's important to ask your parents whether they have an estate plan, and what that looks like. If they don't have one, maybe this is the time to get that process started.
"Estate plan" might sound fancy, but it's really just designating who will get your assets in case of death or incapacitation, and who will handle your responsibilities.
"Everyone should have a will or a trust and pour-over will, an advanced health care directive and a durable power of attorney for finances," said Ron Ostrin, a California-based estate attorney.
"These are health and financial powers of attorney that spring into action if you become incapacitated."
Like insurance, if you wait to get an estate plan until you need it, then it's too late. Become incapacitated without one, and your family could find themselves frustrated and taking a big financial hit.
"Your significant other or family might be required to seek a guardianship or conservatorship in the probate court," Ostrin said. "Which is a time consuming and expensive procedure."
Use the news as a conversation starter
One way you can get the ball rolling is to talk about what's going on in the world. Sharing what motivated you to want to have that conversation can be a gentle way to ease into it.
"Offer an invitation to talk," Krawchuk said. "But at the same time, an invitation not to talk or to talk later — not push it too hard."
Pressuring someone into the conversation could scare them, or make them resentful.
You don't need to have an urgent tone or act like something bad is absolutely going to happen. And the conversation could happen wherever it happens naturally, be it via Zoom, phone or even a well-crafted email.
Set a time limit
"When my own father was dying, he couldn't have this conversation," Krawchuk said.
"I brought it up a couple of times and said, 'We need to know where the safety deposit box is. We need to know things. Or it's going to be a disaster for us.'"
It can be frustrating to engage with someone who is resistant. They might be more open to talking for a limited amount of time — say 10 minutes — and then pause the conversation, for the time being.
You can come back to the conversation later. This way, it doesn't feel so intimidating.
Think about your own wishes
This conversation doesn't just have to be about your parents. Here's the grim part — anyone can die, and there's no such thing as too early to think about this stuff, especially if you have children, own property or have health issues.
You might find it helpful to discuss in a more collaborative way, instead of a one-sided conversation that feels like you're telling your parents what to talk about.
For instance, COVID-19 has many folks thinking about whether they would want to go on a ventilator, were they to fall very ill. This could be a discussion point with your family. What would you want? What would they want?
This can help you start thinking about preparing an advance health care directive. This process may vary a bit by state.
"It is a way to speak to your doctors and family when you are unable to, and to control who speaks for you in reference to your health issues when you can't," Ostrin said.
"It needs to either be witnessed by two people over the age of 18 and not mentioned in the directive, or notarized."
You don't need to worry about being too early, or your wishes changing. Until someone dies or is incapacitated, their estate plan, including a health care directive, can be changed at any time.
Forgive yourself if the conversation feels too tough
Death is a hard thing to think about in normal times. But it feels a lot closer right now, a lot scarier.
"Some people may not be able to have this conversation in the anxious times that we're in. It might be too much," Krawchuk said.
"If people can think about it, fine. But it's also OK to say, 'I simply can't do that right now.'"
Krawchuck has taught college classes where students were assigned to have these conversations with their parents. Some get pretty hung up on it.
"On the other hand, I work with cancer patients all the time who, with phenomenal courage, face this. And I see the beauty that can come with that when you face the reality that we're all going to die sooner rather than later," she said.
"To not tiptoe around that fact can open up a lot of beautiful conversations."