How to Have a Genuine End-of-Life Discussion with a Loved One

This article is courtesy of guest columnist Beverly Nelson, the operator of

There are a few times in everyone’s life when words fail and we just don’t know what to say to someone else. One of the most awkward situations anyone will ever face is having to discuss death and end-of-life arrangements with a loved one. If you aren’t tongue-tied and at an absolute loss for how to begin such a discussion, you’re apt to be harshly self-critical for not having said the “right thing.” It’s a necessary conversation, but some people never figure out how or when to broach the subject, even with someone they’ve known their entire lives. Anxiety, sadness, guilt, and fear may afflict you all at once. The important thing to remember is that there’s no right or wrong way to handle it. Every situation and individual is different. But there are several tips that can help you find ways to be open and honest with a loved one who faces their own mortality.


No one likes to talk about death, but it can be a therapeutic, even revelatory experience if handled with love and patience. Try creating an opening for airing the subject by asking how your loved one is feeling emotionally and physically. Offer to provide assistance if they’re feeling depressed or in pain, and ask if they’d like to discuss their feelings with you. Don’t be insistent or confrontational; just make it known that you’re available and willing to talk if they’d like. Don’t fear awkward silences. Often, they become openings for candid remarks that can lead to a substantive conversation. Besides, silence can be reassuring, even if it comes in the middle of a conversation.

Share a Laugh

Laughter is renowned for its ability to provide an emotional uplift. It makes you feel better physically and emotionally. Try discussing common experiences that will get you both laughing and reminiscing about happy times. Laughing and remembering are excellent ways to help a terminally ill relative feel better about their quality of life and may create an opening for talking about end-of-life dispositions.

Change the Subject

Sometimes, terminally ill individuals just want to talk about something that will take their minds off things. Try airing subjects that have nothing to do with a loved one’s illness. Instead, talk about something near and dear to his heart, a favorite subject, a sports team, or a much-loved hobby, like gardening or genealogical research. Show a genuine interest and ask questions that’ll stir their interest and enthusiasm, which can lead to the airing of a necessary though uncomfortable discussion you both know needs to happen. Your loved one may express gratitude for your help with day-to-day activities they’re no longer able to handle on their own. This sense of gratitude can make them more amenable to talking about their situation and wishes.

Avoid Overly Simplistic and Clichéd Expressions  

Be sure to avoid platitudes and simplistic expressions that someone may find patronizing or even insulting. Remember that someone who knows you well will easily recognize when you’re being insincere and just trying to placate them. Don’t indulge in expressions like “It’s God’s will,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s an indirect way of saying that you’re not comfortable with having a meaningful exchange, which won’t help you when it comes to discussing death and end-of-life arrangements.

Their Wishes, Funeral Expenses, and Insurance

People often genuinely want to talk about their funeral arrangements. They may want a particular song or hymn played, or a favorite psalm or Biblical reading included. In that case, you can expect them to give you an opportunity to talk about any other issues, such as a will or trust. If there’s a problem with funeral expenses, one option to consider is talking with your loved one about selling a life insurance policy to free up cash. Learn the ins and outs before taking any steps, just to be sure this option is the best one for your particular situation.

Having the end-of-life conversation with a relative or friend can take some time and effort getting your loved one to feel comfortable airing the subject of death. Try encouraging them to bring up the subject when they’re comfortable, and be gentle about steering the conversation. Don’t be banal or insistent; be patient, open, and sharing so that it’s clear you’re being sincere and respectful with them. Once someone knows you have their best interests at heart, it’s much easier to initiate a conversation that can be painful and even frightening.

KRASA LAW, Inc. is located at 704-D Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove, California 93950 and Kyle may be reached at 831-920-0205.

Disclaimer: This article is for general information only.  Reading this article does not establish an attorney/client relationship.  Before taking action on any of the information provided in this article, you should consult a competent attorney who is licensed to practice law in your community.

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