Apr 18, 2017

Stumbling Onto a Fun Way to Start a Family Conversation About Death and Dying

In the USA, a 2012 survey by the California HealthCare Foundation found that while more than three quarters of respondents “said it was important to express their end-of-life wishes in writing, fewer than 1 in 4 have done that.” However, according to Boston Globe journalist Kay Lazar, that tide may be turning, and “momentum may be building” for changing attitudes. As evidence, she pointed to two initiatives that had been started with the aim of encouraging “end-of-life- discussions” in the United States.

Engage with Grace is an online campaign that was launched in 2008 with the aim of “promoting end-of-life discussions” around the time of Thanksgiving. It was co-founded by Alexandra Drane, “who runs a Danvers software company focused on health care,” and which had been “hearing from a lot of baby boomers who have had bad experiences with decision-making in their parents’ deaths because they failed to have meaningful conversations beforehand, and now want to help others avoid that mistake.”

The second initiative, The Conversation Project, was driven by a similar motivation. This project was co-founded by newspaper columnist Ellen Goodman and grew from her realisation that, after having “spent a career communicating other people’s stories, she had neglected to have a detailed conversation with her mother about her preferences…before she was incapacitated from dementia.” And so Goodman had been torn while making complex decisions for her medical care. Her project was launched in 2012 with a national campaign and with “big financial backing,” and was aimed at encouraging “open and honest discussions among families and friends about how they want to live life at the end, so that their wishes will be followed.”

Both of these initiatives provide guidelines or starter kits to help jumpstart those difficult “end-of-life conversations.”

And just last night my 37-year-old (and completely healthy) daughter and I stumbled across a third approach. We were talking about music that we liked and she jokingly mentioned one that she would want to have played at her funeral. I immediately jumped in with the one that I definitely wanted to have played at mine. So, in this era of the internet, she tapped on her phone, and played our respective choices, introducing each of us into the other’s different world of musical likes.

And got on a roll, with each of us producing additional inclusions to listen to, and offering our free and frank opinions on each other’s choices; and inviting her Dad to join in, which he did with alacrity, until we’d each accumulated a substantial list for our funeral mixed tapes, which she then emailed to the rest of the family. Meanwhile, we found ourselves talking about related topics, like preferred options and dilemmas between methods of dealing with our bodies after death. It was all fairly light-hearted, and we’re expecting some diverse reactions from the family when they see the email.

But the main thing is that I can now offer this field-tested approach as a totally enjoyable way of opening up that important family conversation about end-of-life and after life issues.


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