My Life Conversations: Handling Your Parents’ Denial

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Welcome to My Life Conversations, a new Passare series where we share stories from people who are struggling to discuss end-of-Life planning with their aging parents.
What often goes unsaid is that it’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Whether you’re planning for yourself or for a loved one, the fact is, it’s pretty mortifying to anyone. We hope this series will give you some insights and real-life tools, so you can feel comfortable having the conversation.

In our first article, Tom, a 43-year old man with aging parents who are in denial and don’t want to discuss end-of-life planning, shares how he initiated the conversation and what his experience has been.

Part 1:  Just Start

There seems to be is a deeply ingrained belief within American culture that tells us to ignore our mortality – or any discussions about it – for as long as possible.

In some part of the country, you might hear, “it’s not polite to speak of death,” especially in public circles. My parents raised me this way, perhaps because we grew up in the south. We did not speak about death, ever. If and when someone died, it was acknowledged in passing, almost as if you lingered on it, the Grim Reaper would hear his name being called and come knocking at your door.

Now that I am adult, I see the conversation can’t be avoided any longer in my family. Both my 70-year-old parents are getting older and progressively more frail, to the point where I feel in my heart that they need to start planning for End-of-Life. The time to have the discussion is long overdue.

But how do you begin the conversation when the topic is a conversation-stopper? There aren’t many subjects in life that bring up more uncomfortable feelings than, “ Dad, Mom, can we talk about your death?”

Of course every family is different. Here is my story and what worked for my family.

My parents could not be more polar-opposites. They literally cannot agree on anything, except one thing; talking about their own death. When I bring up End-of-Life or planning for this inevitable event, they both have the same response. They “don’t want to talk about it.” Their unified wall of denial might make sense if they were still married and I was asking them together around the kitchen table. But Mom and Dad were divorced decades ago.

Why would two completely different people who face the same situation avoid the topic in the exact same way? Here’s what I figured out.

As different as they are, my parents have both lived healthy, successful lives. They were lucky enough to have gone through a combined 140 years on earth without facing many personal tragedies. That is when it dawned on me, planning for End-of-Life (not to mention the daunting task of actually facing it) is the biggest challenge of their lives… hands down.

So how can you start talking with your parents about the most difficult topic there is? My perspective: it takes a little psychology, a little patience and a lot of persistence. You really have to know your parents in order to really reach them.

Let’s start with how I went about reaching Dad. The first thing I did was look at what motivates him. What causes him to take action? What are his values? Who is this guy I call Dad?

It’s an understatement to say Dad likes to be prepared. He makes detailed plans for just about everything. He has insurance policies on his house, his car, his boat, my step mom, the family dog; you name it.

Dad is a big fan of Western Medicine. He is in good health although he always says diabetes is just around the corner. Did I mention he’s the family hypochondriac?

Dad takes great pride in having his retirement plan in place, but he has not made a comprehensive End-of-Life plan because it scares him to think about it.

But he’s not totally unprepared. That wouldn’t be Dad. He had a Will drawn up when he was in his 50s and was afraid of dying in a plane crash. When I ask him now about his Will he said he hasn’t looked at it in 20 years and that he left out anything related to him having a catastrophic illness.

When I dig further, Dad tells me he never met with an Estate Planner or an Elder Law expert. He has no Advance Directive or POLST form. He has no long-term care insurance. He has no plan for long-term care at all. Dad says he’ll “croak before he’s kept alive in some nursing home,” even though his grandfather lived to be 95 and spent his final days in a nursing home.

After learning this from my Dad, I think how can I help him fill the holes in his plan? My initial approach was to bring up the topic of his retirement to gently nudge him on the subject of End-of-Life in a philosophical way. Then I let him talk.

I think that is a key factor in reaching your parents and getting the conversation started. Don’t just talk “to them” about End-of-Life. Listen to them talk about it. If you listen closely, you may find they give clues about how to connect with them.

One day, I brought my daughter to visit Dad at his beach house on the Texas coast. As we walked down a road toward the beach, we saw a sign that read: “End of the Road.” He looked at me and said, “That is my worst fear. That I’ll retire down here and… that’s it, End of the Road.”

Dad said he’s not ready to talk about death. He’s having a hard enough time easing into his retirement. “Planning to die should be the last plan I make,” he said. “Unless I am hit by a car, I’ve got better things to do with my time. I’ve got to sell the house and move. I’ve got grandchildren to see and a retirement to enjoy. Death can wait.”

So, I let it go for now, but the ice had been broken, the conversation had been started. Where do you go from here? How can I with Dad?

After listening to him talk, I went back to my dollar-store psychology degree. If I know anything about this man it’s that fear is a big driver for him. And being prepared is important to him, which ties back to fear. At his core, Dad is afraid of not being ready.

So I decided my next step in having the conversation will be to share some stories from his contemporaries who died with no plan, and how that affected their family after they were gone. Maybe he will be “afraid” of not being the most prepared man on the block and take action. Maybe. Tune in next week for what happened next.

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2 Responses to “My Life Conversations: Handling Your Parents’ Denial”

  1. Nancy Rust

    great article and so important to have the conversation

    • Jennifer Harrell

      thank you Nancy!

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