How to have “the talk” with your parents

Gail RubinHave you ever tried talking about death and end-of-life issues with your parents or your spouse and encountered stony silence? It can be a hard conversation to start.

These days, we see dramatic improvements in medical care extending lifetimes as never before. However, humans do still have a 100 percent mortality rate.

Yet, only 25 – 30 percent of us make end-of-life plans. That leaves 70 – 75 percent of the population unprepared and devastated, not if but when there’s a death in the family.

Why are these planning rates so low? We’re terrified of death! But just like talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, talking about end-of-life issues won’t make you dead. As your parents may have struggled with having the “Birds and the Bees” talk with you, the end-of-life talk may feel hard for you to start with your parents.

Luckily, my parents are open to the topic. Mom and Dad were present as I conducted the first Death Café west of the Mississippi in Albuquerque on September 30, 2012. They wanted to support my pioneering work as a death educator.

The Death Café is an interesting, unstructured conversation — open and free-flowing with no specific agenda — designed to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their finite lives. At these events, people come together in a relaxed, confidential, and safe setting to discuss death, drink their favorite beverages, and eat delicious cake or cookies.

After the event, Dad said, “You need to come over to the house. I want to show you where all the important papers are.” Since I’m the executor for Mom and Dad’s estate, this was a very good development.

My parents, who are in their mid-80s, have made their end-of-life plans. They’ve prepared their wills/trusts and advance medical directives, and we’ve pre-planned and paid for their funerals. They also organized their information: financial accounts, family and professional contacts, and official papers.

You may be surprised how amenable parents can be to talking about this topic. Very often the younger generation has to get over the idea that discussing mortality is morbid. No, it’s practical. And not everyone is practical. For those spouses, parents and other elders who are not so amenable to discussing end-of-life, here are some suggestions.

Think Practicalities
You don’t know what’s inside someone else’s head. Mom and Dad may be organized, but if they don’t tell you where to find the files, it’s a problem. And if dementia sets in before you know all the details, that’s a bigger problem. Avoid these problems by addressing practical questions while everyone is relatively healthy.

Advance medical directives: “Who do you want to speak on your behalf if you are unconscious or unable to communicate?” “If you are unlikely to regain your health or quality of life, what do you want done — intensive medical intervention to keep you alive or pain control and comfort care?” The Five Wishes is an excellent resource for answering these kinds of questions, and it’s a legal form in 42 states. You can find Five Wishes online at

A will or trust: “How do you want to give out your stuff?” That sounds friendlier than, “How do you want to distribute your estate assets?” If your parents don’t have wills, the state will dictate who gets their stuff — surely, you don’t want that. A trust may be a better legal approach to avoid probate and protect privacy, especially if considerable real estate and financial resources are involved. Consult with an estate planning attorney to learn the best approach for your own family situation.

Pre-need funeral planning: The worst time to go funeral shopping is when you have a dead body on your hands. While you can still laugh and think clearly, shop several funeral providers, visit their locations, compare their prices and talk to their people. It’s a fascinating shopping trip. Ask your folks, “What do you want — cremation or burial?” Then you can figure out how to get it done.

You can pre-plan a funeral and not pre-pay. Simply put your information and wishes on file with a funeral home, and you will reduce stress enormously. However, know how you will pay for these arrangements when the time comes. Most funeral homes do take credit cards (think of the points, the miles!) and offer funeral insurance plans. Or you can tap into savings, or obtain final expense insurance, small whole life policies up to $35,000.

Key information: If you had to plan a funeral for someone today, do you know the five pieces of information you must know now about that person?
They are:
• Social Security number
• Place of birth
• Mother’s maiden name
• Veteran’s information
• Passwords for devices and online accounts

The first four are needed for death certificates and to obtain government benefits. You may know your own information, but do you know your parents’ or your spouse’s? If you die and take your passwords with you, it’s a major headache to shut down and protect accounts, from banking to Facebook. Write this information down, keep it in a safe place, and let a trusted person know where to find it.

Conversation Starters
No one likes to address the emotional aspects of death or funerals head-on. However, most people are willing to discuss it openly and honestly when you frame it around facts and figures.

Sometimes the best way to move recalcitrant parents or spouses along on pre-planning is to make your own arrangements first. That’s what my husband and I did, telling his parents we were going cemetery plot shopping and asking if they wanted to come along. They came, they saw, they bought, and it was easy.

Or, try one of these approaches:
Attend a funeral: There’s nothing like going to someone else’s funeral with your parents to get the conversation going. You could say what you liked about it, or didn’t, and ask your parents for their thoughts on the matter.

Watch a funny funeral film: As a death educator, I use funny films to help teach about serious subjects. Comedies like Undertaking Betty, Elizabethtown, Bernie, Death at a Funeral and Get Low all present funerals and funeral arrangements in ways that prompt laughter. Once the movie is over, you can talk in a relaxed way about what you saw and what your family could do.

Participate in a Death Café: Sometimes, it’s easier to talk about these kinds of issues with total strangers. You might not get your parents to attend a Death Café as my parents did, but the fact that you participated can help open the door to a conversation. Look for an event in your area at

Recognize reality: Not every elderly person will discuss their final arrangements. One of my uncles has been undecided about his funeral plans for years — burial in a national cemetery in Florida or return his body to rest with his parents up north? Even though he is in poor physical health, he refuses to discuss what’s to be done after he dies. Although I’m the death expert in the family, even I can’t get him to talk.

To help get your parents and yourself organized, download a free planning form at You can reduce stress and family conflict, save money, and create a meaningful, memorable good goodbye.

Gail Rubin is a Certified Thanatologist (a death educator) who uses humor and funny films to teach about serious subjects. The online video of her TEDxABQ talk, A Good Goodbye, presents a strong message about pre-need end-of-life planning: She’s the author of the award-winning book, A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die.