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By Cathy Rondina

Talking about death can be difficult but doesn’t have to be something negative.

Cynthia Miller had been trying for years to get her 70-year-old mother to talk to her about those difficult “end of life” questions. But even though her mother suffered from a long- term illness, she refused to discuss her financial situation or her preferences regarding long-term care, medical intervention, and funeral arrangements. “When my father found out that he had terminal cancer, he organized everything and paid for it all,” says Miller. She’s thankful for the initiative he took in arranging his personal affairs before he died. So her mother’s determination to avoid the matter was frustrating.

Miller worried about upsetting her mother by pursuing things further. “I think my mother felt that if you don’t talk about it, it won’t happen,” she says. But her mother passed away last summer after suffering a stroke then falling and breaking her hip. While she was in the hospital, she did talk to her daughter about her final wishes, but Miller can’t help thinking that it might have been too late.

Miller’s anxiety and her mother’s need to distance herself from the topic are both normal reactions, says June Lam, of the Family Services Employee Assistance Program in Toronto. “The idea of talking about death is something people often avoid.” Even in terminal cases, “For most people it’s a case of sill having hope, and we tend to hang on to the hope.”

Talking about death can be very difficult, but Lam stresses the need for this type of communication between parents and their adult children: “The topic can be dealt with and it doesn’t have to become something negative. If you talk about things when there aren’t health issues hanging over you, everyone feels more comfortable and clear about what is being decided.” Often, conversations are sparked by the death or hospitalization of a parent’s friend or relative, and this is the perfect time to get the ball rolling. Lam adds that it’s not always the parents who find these talks difficult; adult children can often be the holdouts.

Gordon Wusyk of Edmonton, founder of Predictable Futures Inc., assists members of family businesses with estate planning. But his insights can also be helpful to others. He says that baby boomers are now starting to think about how to deal with their own estates, as well as their parents’. He recommends that the inevitability of retirement and death be dealt with long before they occur: “You help expedite the transfer of assets and cut down on the emotional turmoil and confrontation that many families go through. Knowing that things are taken care of means a lot: it gives you control of what will happen, as opposed to the tax department or some third party getting a piece of what you spent a lifetime building.”

Let’s talk!

  • If adult children decide to initiate the conversation: Make sure you feel comfortable talking about it.
  • If parents plan to start things off: Suggest a family meeting. Let your children know that you want to talk about important family matters.
  • Use specific language and don’t skirt around the issues. When you dodge the subject, you make everyone feel uncomfortable.
  • Try to avoid having a meeting during times of crisis. When tensions are high, bad decisions are often made.
  • Doing the legal stuff first makes people feel more at ease. Then you can lead them into more emotional areas.
  • Don’t try to tackle everything in one meeting. These things take time.

For parents to ponder

  • Keep your will current. Don’t expect a document that you drew up 20 years ago to be sufficient. Laws change, situations change.
  • Choose an executor wisely. Many parents choose an adult child. Be sure that your intentions are made clear.
  • Let everyone in the family or those named in your will know what your objectives are. This way you don’t create any false expectations.
  • Outline who gets what. With personal items, put all your wishes in writing and let each person know what you’ve chosen to leave them.
  • Be open about your decisions. If you’re not dividing your estate equally among your children, explain your reasoning and give them time to digest the news.

Download a pdf version of this article here.