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How to Talk to Your Grown Kids About Your Mortality

Do these three things and your children will thank you

By Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett

During a car ride, Peter brought up to his two twentysomethings what his end-of-life wishes would be: No heroic measures, because he wouldn't want to suffer and wouldn't want his family to endure it. One of the boys took this in stride, but the other became very upset, asking: "Why are you talking about this? It's horrible that you're so calm about death."

Death comes to us all, but in the 21 century, it comes later than ever for most people. Because of medical advances, life expectancy has stretched to record highs, and in the United States and other countries most people can expect to live into their 70s or 80s. Perhaps for this reason, we generally prefer to ignore death and avoid talking about it, even when we’re in our 60s or older. And our young-adult children, certain of their own immortality, may also prefer to think of their parents as living forever. Bringing up our mortality may provide a rude awakening to grown children of any age.

But we ignore it at our peril, or rather, at the peril of those we love. They may not want to hear us talk about the inevitable visit from the Grim Reaper, but if we neglect the responsibility to prepare for our death — and to prepare them for it — we do them a disservice and leave them with a stressful mess when the time comes. That’s a legacy few of us would wish.

So, here are three crucial issues to make sure you address and discuss:

1. Make a Will

You need to have a will, and once you do you need to make sure your loved ones know about it. Because we tend to prefer to think of death as many years away no matter what age we are, many of us fail to fulfill the basic responsibility of making a will. Various surveys indicate that about 50 percent of American adults have not had one drafted. The percent who have made a will rises with age, but even among 55- to 64-year-olds, 40 percent have no will.

Here's the problem with that: If you die without a will, the state takes over your estate and makes the decisions about who gets what. Who would want that?

So, no excuses: If you haven’t prepared a will yet, do it as soon as you’re done reading this post! There are many inexpensive online options or you can hire an estate planning attorney if your estate is complex or you’d like the assurance that all the legal steps have been taken correctly.

2. Make Funeral Plans


Figure out plans for your funeral and burial or cremation and make sure family members know what ,and where, the plans are. We’re not crazy about talking about this aspect of death, either, but again, wouldn’t you rather decide on this now, rather than leaving it to your grieving family members to handle hastily after your death? You may find consolation, too, in the thought that the post-death commemoration will be done as you would have wished, even though it is a party you will not be able to attend.

3. Make Your End-of-Life Plan

You also should come up with your end-of-life plan and make sure your loved ones know about it. Medical interventions are extremely effective at keeping us alive at the end of life, even after any prospect of restoring us to consciousness, much less good health, has passed. People vary in how they view this issue, from those who want all possible steps to be taken to those who would prefer not to prolong the inevitable.

Ask your doctor how to make an “advance directive” that will contain your instructions or look up the instructions online from a reputable source like AARP or state government websites (each state has its own laws concerning end-of-life care).

Don’t assume your loved ones will know what to do; they probably won’t, and you don’t want them to have to make those decisions amid the stress and sadness of losing you.

Difficult as these conversations and plans may be, for your children’s sake and for your own peace of mind, discuss them now, while you are lucid and healthy. Your children may not thank you today, but they will appreciate the guidance when the time comes. That’s one last gift of love you can give them after you’re gone.

Elizabeth Fishel is the author of five nonfiction books including Sisters and Getting To 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years (with Jeffrey Arnett).  She has contributed to numerous magazines including Vogue, Ms., New York, The Writer, and Oprah's O.  She has written for Next Avenue since 2014. Read More
Jeffrey Arnett is the co-author of Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years. Arnett is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University. Read More
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