3 steps to starting the conversation

November 19, 2020
Coffee mug with Begin written on it
end of life planning
anticipate life
supporting others
Leanne Russell

No one likes to talk about it, yet it is a critical conversation we all should have. Of course, it is only human to avoid the topic of death or dying. But doing so can create more tension and stress and destroy relationships in the silence.

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, Ellen Goodman says in her TedxBoston talk, we need to bring dying into the open. In 2010, she founded The Conversation Project, a US based non-profit that focuses on making the conversation of dying easier. Palliative Care Australia were inspired by The Conversation Project and launched the Dying to Talk campaign to encourage Australians of all ages to talk about death and dying. Research by Dying to Know Day found that 75% of Australians have not had end of life conversations, but 60% think we need to talk more about death and end of life planning.

You may not think you need to have the conversation - your parents are healthy or ‘not that old’, but we know that death can be unpredictable. The situation with the Corona Virus pandemic has made death even more so. Very few Australians will have faced such a threat to their lives before, so the risk of Covid-19 makes this conversation even more important.

Goodman says, “It’s best to have these conversations before there’s a crisis, because a crisis is a terrible time to learn.” Making decisions about death and dying before a crisis allows us to consider all our options carefully and consult with family, friends and other relevant people, so we can live our lives knowing our wishes are clear.  If we don’t talk about it, we may cause damage in relationships between family, or leave the people we love most with guilt or regret that they didn’t know how to honour our end-of-life wishes.    

Starting the conversations is the key. Here are three steps to guide you to get started.

Step 1

Recognise that conversations like this will take time and require tact, tenderness and understanding. It is not a conversation you can tick off your to-do list. It probably will need to be multiple conversations with individuals or a few important people. Perhaps a conversation covering just one topic or concern. Be prepared to stop the conversation when it becomes too uncomfortable for you or for others. Be respectful of their point of view. Remember, nothing is set in stone.

Step 2

It’s normal not to know how to begin the conversation. Starting with “Mum/Dad, I need your help with something” will encourage the other party to participate or contribute ideas. Goodman explains, “When you phrase it in those terms, it’s a rare parent who will say, ‘No, I’m not going to help you.’ ”.  Sometimes using a shared experience or family story helps open the door to addressing the topic of death and dying. “Remember when Aunt Mabel passed away...”

Step 3

To help guide the conversation, ask your parent to complete this sentence, “What matters to me most at the end of life is...” This will give you an insight into your parent’s priorities and the ideas that need to be discussed in another conversation.

This is where Anticipate Life can help. Putting your parent’s wishes and ideas into simple instructions so that there are no arguments, no stress or worry about what they would have wanted.    

“These talks are a gift we can give each other” says Goodman.

They are real, they are emotional but they are conversations about things that matter. The best conversations we ever needed to have.