How to discuss last wishes with your loved ones
Singer Céline Dion has announced that she and her husband, René Angélil, have talked very honestly and openly about his long battle with throat cancer and his last wish.
"René says to me, 'I want to die in your arms.' OK... I'll be there, you'll die in my arms," she told USA Today in an interview.
Dion's husband was diagnosed with throat cancer for a second time in 2013. Preparing for his death must be devastating for Dion, yet having the opportunity to discuss his end-of-life choices together is likely bringing some comfort to the couple and their family.
Most of us wouldn’t even know where to begin discussing end-of-life wishes with our loved ones, and of course, sadly, we aren’t guaranteed that option. But would you know how to have this conversation? Here, Juli Fraga, SheKnows Expert and licensed psychologist, offers practical advice to help you through the painful process.
When is the right time to discuss last wishes?
Discussion times for topics surrounding death vary. Oftentimes when someone is chronically ill, these conversations may begin once the patient enters hospice/palliative care. Hospice/palliative care are medical and support services extended to the family and the patient when a terminally ill patient nears the end of their life. Last wishes vary, but common wishes may include how the patient hopes to die. For example, patients may wish to be surrounded by loved ones and to die at home (if possible). If the patient has a certain spiritual or religious practice, they may request that spiritual leaders or pastors are included in their last days to offer blessings and prayers.
How to start the conversation
These conversations can be difficult to begin because they indicate that the patient is nearing the end of his or her life. Hospital social workers, grief therapists, physicians, ministers/pastors/spiritual leaders can all help lead these difficult conversations in a meaningful way by asking questions such as, "Is there anything in particular you hope for when you die?" Hospice workers provide tremendous support by witnessing the patient's final days and weeks and providing family support as they educate family members about the dying process. For example, a dear friend of mine lost her teenage son to cancer. Her hospice worker told her that people shed tears when they die. Knowing this, she saved her son's tear in a handkerchief, and this inspired her book about grief, The Last Tear.
Who needs to be involved in these conversations?
This depends upon what the person's wishes are. If they request a prayer, ceremony or spiritual practice, religious leaders may be called to the bedside. Funeral arrangements vary depending upon the family's preference. Sometimes these logistics are planned in advance.
What happens when you aren't able to fulfill your loved one's last wish?
Have compassion for yourself and your loved ones — know that you did everything possible to offer loving support. One of the most vulnerable aspects of death is that it strips away our sense of control.