We’ve all seen the commercials telling us how our holidays should look. Families gathered in a picture-perfect scene. The holiday table is filled with food that looks almost too good to eat. Everyone is in their most festive attire, and children seem to have an angelic glow about them.
But then, there’s reality. The stuffing is dry. The potatoes are lumpy. Some chairs are empty because winter weather prevented travel. The dog is aggressively begging for scraps under the table and the kids are running around and squealing like they are at a playground.
Holiday dinner conversations also can be a tricky area. Old family issues can come up and past transgressions recalled. And since it might be one of the few times of the year that you all are together, someone might even try to have one of the important talks, such as about death and dying. Mom might casually mention that when she dies she wants the grandchildren to get the china that has been in the family for years. Dad might explain that he has a living will that bans doctors from performing CPR if he becomes seriously ill.
For the most part, these conversations are probably about as welcome at the holiday dinner table as your Aunt Louise’s lime Jello salad concoction with mystery ingredients.
Yet while the holiday dinner itself isn’t the best place for these talks, it can be wise to schedule a time for these tough conversations about end-of-life matters and estate planning while you are home. Here’s why:
Being together is a good time to lay the groundwork. If you are a parent who wants to talk to your children about your end-of-life wishes and your estate plans, use the time together to introduce the concept and test the waters. You can let your family know you’d like to talk soon about your future medical care and also your wishes for after you die, such as funeral arrangements and who you would like to inherit your belongings. Doing so, even without going into details, will allow you to see how open to the conversation your children and/or other family members are and you can then better gauge how to go about it. Perhaps your daughter seems open to the idea of knowing your plans but your son is resistant, saying he doesn’t want to think about a time when you’re no longer alive. By knowing their feelings, you can better plan for the full, detailed conversation later and also give them time to prepare emotionally for the talk.
If you are the child of an aging parent, it’s smart to take some time during the visit to gather information. Without pushing for details — unless they are offered — you can ask your parent if they have been able to find the time to write a will, make decisions about end-of-life care, and whether they have preferences about such things as their funeral. Let them know you don’t mean to be nosy, but rather you want to make sure you honor their wishes when the time comes. Ask to get together again soon to go over the details. The holiday visit is also a good time to take note of things like general health, memory and your parent’s ability to complete daily tasks. It is easier to get an accurate impression in person than over the phone.
Remember that the holidays can be stressful and exhausting, though. I’m sure even Martha Stewart is not perfectly on her game every day, especially during holiday get-togethers. Your few days or hours together at the holidays are not going to give you the complete picture, so consult family members, neighbors and friends who live near your parents if you feel you might not be getting all the facts. And keep in mind that even if your parents seem well, it is never a bad idea to plan a follow-up visit to discuss end-of-life and estate plans. Illness and accidents can strike suddenly and unexpectedly and learning your parent’s wishes while they are alive and feeling well will be easier than relying on paperwork or risking the possibility that they become too ill to convey their wishes.
Family time together means you can talk to siblings in person. Understanding that the family holiday celebration is not the best place to have conversations about end-of-life plans, it can still be a good time to introduce the topic. For parents who will be visiting their own siblings over the holidays, ask if they have a plan to begin the conversation with their own adult children or if they’ve already discussed it. They can be a great source of support when you eventually have the same conversation with your children and can help you avoid any mistakes they made along the way.
If you are an adult child of an aging parent, the holiday visit might be one of the few times a year that all the siblings are together. It is wise to take a few minutes to come up with a mutually agreeable time to come back and talk with your parents about their end-of-life wishes and estate plans. You also might want to spend some time with siblings talking about any concerns regarding your parent’s health and what will happen when and if the time comes that they can’t take care of themselves. By having these talks while together – in what is hopefully a relaxing environment – everyone should feel comfortable with honestly expressing their thoughts and concerns. It also can help you see whether you all share the same ideas or if you might veer in different directions when it comes to decisions regarding everything from your parent’s future care to how their estate will be handled once they die. By knowing this sooner rather than later, you can ask your parents specifically how they want these matters handled and spare yourself the potential of sibling discord later.
Talking about death is never easy. Discussing details about funerals, wills and inheritances can be uncomfortable and depressing. However, the downside of not having these conversations is much worse than the discomfort associated with having them. Most of us have specific wishes when it comes to our final days and after. We know how we’d like our funeral to be, how we would like our money and household items distributed, and who we want to handle it. But if we don’t take the time to share this information — as well as legally document it in writing — we can’t expect our wishes to be granted. In the same vein, we can’t properly honor our parent’s wishes without taking the time to talk to them about their wants, even if it’s not an easy conversation.
The best place to start may be simply saying that you would like to have the difficult conversation because it is in the best interest of the family to do so. A holiday visit can be a great time to schedule that talk.