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This is a question about an unpleasant topic that we will all have to face at some point in time: death. If you are uneasy or sensitive about the subject, please stop reading now.

With that said...

My parents are in their 80s with degrading health. Visits to the hospital for various medical reasons have been increasing. I absolutely hate to admit this, but at some point, they might not come home after one of those visits to the hospital. I want to have a conversation with them about this, to know about their last wishes. I don't even know if they prefer to be buried or cremated. I don't know what they want to happen with their possessions. I don't know who they want notified about their death.

I don't know how to approach this and I'm really scared about the consequences such a conversation might have. I don't want them to get all depressed about it and start thinking about death all the time, thus contributing to their health issues.

Some other information to put things into context:

  • me and my parents have always had a good relation, but it's not what I might call "warm". We never discussed feelings, sexuality, religion, about life in general... or death. I'm not sure exactly how that happened, but that's how it is. This will be an emotional talk, of a kind that we almost never had before. I also have two siblings. Our relation is the same. We all have our families and moved out of the house long ago. But we don't really communicate to each other our problems. We keep to ourselves and we deal with things on our own. I'm sure they also thought about this but they are probably just as reticent as me to open up a conversation.

  • while I was growing up my parents didn't go to church and they didn't strike me as the religious bunch. Some time after them retiring, they started attending church though. I'm not sure if this is because they are doing something they could not do while they were employed and taking care of the house, if they do it to see friends, or if they feel the end approaching and somehow they try to find some comfort or peace in that.

  • I'm an atheist interested in topics like stoicism, existentialism and various practices from Buddhism. Because of that, I have no issue dealing with my own mortality, and I'm not scared of dying. It's part of the human condition. It's something we cannot avoid. It makes sense to me to somehow prepare for it so that my own family's knows what my last wishes are and all my affairs are in order so my death isn't a burden to them. For example, I want to be cremated and my ashes disposed of. I have all documents set in order, my wife knows where to find everything after I'm dead. I have accounts with passwords written on paper, where she can find all the money I manage (my bank accounts, investments, paypal, cryptocurrencies, etc.). I have a list with things required by law to be done after my death so my surviving wife knows what needs to do, so she doesn't need to figure things out while also dealing with my death, etc. She's kind of freaked out about this (death is kind of a taboo subject for her) and doesn't want to talk about the subject, but at least accepted that there is a folder in the safe with instructions to follow after I'm dead.

Obviously I don't want to have such an extended conversation with my parents and make them plan for their death, but It would help to know what their last wishes are and in what way they would want their affairs settled before leaving this planet.

How do I even open up a discussion like this with my parents. Or with anyone for that matter, that considers death as something taboo to talk about?

P.S. I'm not going to tag this with some specific country or culture. I'm interested in anyone's opinion, no matter their cultural background.

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In seminary we learned about counseling others and I've volunteered with the elderly.

For the most part, people in advanced years and declining health know what's happening. We all face our own mortality - some do it earlier than others. Some choose to ignore their decline, others choose to act like it's not happening, still others are realistic about it. In the end, you can gather clues by talking to your parents and really listening to what they say. Even about topics other than their last wishes, they will make comments that reveal their frame of mind to you. The more you talk to them and build your relationship, the more they will be (generally) willing to tell you as the trust builds.

If they don't reveal their frame of mind, then it's possible to probe it. But you want them to tell you; you don't want to be pulling that out from them. Even talking about such things as "how was your last hospital stay?" and discussing how it went can reveal their frame of mind. did they like their doctor? Did the care hurt? Are they back all the way after the visit, or do they still feel rough? What are their prospects?

If that doesn't reveal much, then I'd suggest talking about church with them. What's their relationship with the pastor like? Do they like going? How would they feel about that pastor performing your funeral if something were to happen to you? Note you're asking other questions and talking about your funeral; this gives them the opportunity to open up about it.

In the end, you may just need to address the elephant in the room. "Look, Mom and Dad, you're making more visits to the hospital. We should talk about what happens if you can't make decisions for yourself. There's a 'advance care directive' you can write that will ensure doctors follow your wishes regarding your care. Do you want to be kept alive at all costs? Do you want to end all treatment if there's no hope of recovery? What's your goal?"

Once you talk that through, then you can move on to the final topic... "Once you die, what do you want us to do? Where do you want your funeral? Where do you want to be buried? Do you have wills? I'm happy to carry out your wishes but I really have no idea what they are." Then it becomes a conversation about what they want and what they want you to do, not a conversation about death. That's the most important thing, in my experience: make the conversation about their wishes, not their impending end.

If they don't want to talk; I'd suggest a conversation with their pastor for you. He/she, if they're any kind of decent pastor, is interested in the spiritual care of their flock. They may have some insight into your parents' wishes and may also be able to open that conversation for you. It's our job, in a way, to prepare people for the journey that they're about to embark upon. Sometimes it's easy; sometimes it's hard; sometimes it can't be done. But they've done it a lot more than you ever will and will have some insight.

Kudos to you for wanting to do this... too many people die without making their wishes known. It can be challenging, especially with blended families, to figure out what to do.

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My sister (65 at the time) handled this for us, I witnessed it years ago, and it worked fine. Once, when we met at our mom's, she started talking about her own will and what would be done, how, what she had decided, who was in charge, well, everything was set up.

That started an informal discussion between us, where we mostly said or asked who had already decided, or even done something. But without being too inquisitorial.

I feared that our mom, who was kind of a very secret woman, could be upset, but no. She even shared her side of the story, and said she had also already done just like my sister. I think that what triggered this was the informal way of talking, and telling your own story, without asking the others. We were more open to talking about death, because it was not really about death, rather about the surroundings, fringe benefit of having a "funeral arrangement" signed with a professional who would take care of everything and help the family, well, all things related to "after it happens".

While talking, we were also able to watch our mom's reaction. As no negative look or grin could be seen, it was ok to carry on. Any doubt, we would have stopped right away. My sister's goal was not to ask our mom, but that's how it ended. People seem more willing to share personal beliefs like this when they decide to, and are not pushed to.

I think that a good way to start talking about such a touchy subject is to just tell a story about you. And if people want to joint in, they will. Just open the door and watch if someone steps in...

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