In the song, (which I hope you’ll let play while you read this post) one of the most poignant of all Beatles’ songs, the lyric says simply, “I don’t know why nobody told you how to unfold your love.”
George Harrison hit the perfect note with the suggestion that love should unfold. The description is particularly apt when speaking to your parent about his or her end of life. Unfold your love, unfold your compassion, unfold your desire to help your parent live out the rest of life peacefully.
How do you unfold these things? Gently and slowly, just as the word “unfold” implies. If your parent is dying, if he or she has been given a prognosis with an end date, it’s time to talk about that end. It doesn’t have to be a horrible conversation. If done correctly, it can be a thing of beauty.
Open with the reason why you want to talk about the future. Acknowledge the prognosis. A simple, “I know the doctor says (whatever the doctor said about the future) and I want to talk about it so that we can make sure the rest of your time is peaceful and comfortable. If you’ve had a loving relationship with your parent, if he or she has often been your caretaker or cheerleader during your life, you can say that and say you want to return the favor. You can say you want to do for your parent what he or she did for you when you were growing up. If you didn’t have the most loving and close relationship with your parent, you can still say, “You’re my father/mother and I want to do right by you. I want your life to be the best it can be in the months ahead.”
You can say you want to talk about the medical options and the choices that have to be made. If your parent cannot stay in his or her home, where will he or she live? Does your father believe in being kept alive at all costs? Does your mother want to be put on a breathing machine if she can no longer breathe on her own? Does your dad want to be fed through a tube after he cannot eat? Does your mom want to continue to take all medications or would she prefer taking only those that make her more comfortable? If your parent has the ability to think clearly, these are decisions he or she should make.
Beyond the medical questions, there are financial decisions to be made. Does your parent have a will and if not, arrange for one to be drawn up immediately. Does your parent have a Power of Attorney? That is a person he or she would like to take charge of his or her finances if she is still alive but cannot handle business matters. That should be one of the first pieces of business you discuss as you never know when that time will come.
Does your parent have treasured possessions he’d like distributed and if so, to whom?
Of course these are not and should not be questions you cover all in one session. Talking to a parent about dying happens gently, slowly and over some time. But if your parent has gotten that terminal prognosis, regardless of how much time is predicted to remain, don’t wait too long to begin the talk. Protecting your parent is of paramount importance and you will need his or her help to do that. Don’t assume that because you have a close family problems won’t arise. When parents die, emotions run high and people become sad and sometimes desperate. Don’t let your parent’s death take a toll on your family’s future. Talk to your parent and be sure he or she lets your siblings and their spouses know his or her wishes. Open communication with the whole family goes a long way toward keeping peaceful interactions among the family members when the going gets rough and the days get shorter.
Be gentle but be brave enough to let your love unfold… before it’s too late.