Some of the most important and difficult conversations we will have in our lives lie at the heart of Estate Planning – conversations about mortality, talks about dying.
When approaching “the talk,” whether it’s us approaching our loved ones about our own mortality or getting a dying friend or family member to open up about their feelings on finality, it’s important to keep in mind the main goals for everyone: to live – and leave – life without regrets, and to not remain alone in our sadness.
Fears about hurting or scaring a dying friend or family member, as well as altruistic desires to keep loved ones from thinking about or dwelling on impending death are among the major worries that often prevent people from having conversations about death.
However, research shows that when friends and family have open, honest conversations about death, the experience brings them closer to one another and results in all participants having a more hopeful outlook about the future.
In a general sense, people are likely to have six types of conversation where dying is the major theme: conversations about love; identity messages; religious/spiritual talks; everyday talk; difficult relationship talks; and instrumental death talks.
Of course, nothing like impending death can inspire us to tell someone how much we love them, whether it’s a parent finally expressing love withheld from a grown child over a lifetime – even the flip-side of that conversation – or perhaps affirming love in a long-dormant friendship or other relationship. Death-inspired conversations about love fulfil the goal of living and leaving life without regrets.
Identity messages allow us, as we approach the end of our lives, to let certain people know how much they meant to us, or how their role in our lives impacted us. They also give us the opportunity to let someone who is dying understand their role and the impact their time in this life may have had on us.
Death can inspire religious and spiritual conversations even among those who spend a lifetime keeping such thoughts and concerns among their most private, or who might seem among the least religious or spiritual people we know.
And of course, there is what I like to call “everyday talk,” chats about the weather, or sports, or the news of the day, that can ease the stress and strain of coping with impending death. This kind of talk can seem to play into that altruistic desire to keep a loved one from dwelling on death that sometimes keeps us from talking about death at all – but everyday talk is actually an important adjunct to all the other types of conversations about dying.
The difficult relationship talk is one that can cut two ways. For some, death presents an opportunity to heal old wounds and achieve the goal of leaving life without regrets; for others impending death serves as a barrier to unearthing painful memories or confronting people who have not served us well in our lives.
Finally, “instrumental death talks” are most closely attuned to conversations I have with clients around estate planning: who are the people and organizations most important to me, what assets have I built and maintained in my life, and how do I want those assets, people, and organizations to be treated after I’m gone?
There’s a reason it’s called estate “planning” – because it’s always better to have the conversations and make your plans before death becomes the thing we need to talk about most, or want to talk about least.
I encourage people with assets to protect and a legacy they wish to leave to have open and honest instrumental death talks with their loved ones – and with their trusted legal and financial advisors – long before our natural human feelings of immortality wear off.
I offer that advice not only because it makes good sense and the conversations and planning bring people peace of mind but because having instrumental death talks with the right people today leaves us time and space for all the other types of conversations around death we may want and need to have sometime down the road.