Over the last few years, I’ve been talking to my parents about death, in part because of my dad’s health complications, which include a pneumonia infection that nearly killed him last year. In my family, almost no subject is taboo, including death; often, my dad is the one who brings it up. I know that he has advanced directives and long-term care insurance, and that he doesn’t want overly invasive medical treatment, especially if it’s just delaying the inevitable. I know that he would prefer a quick death to a drawn-out decline. I also know — as does he — that we can only plan for so much, and that most of us don’t ultimately get to choose how we die.
Still, there’s a lot that can be planned for, and it goes beyond estate planning and establishing a will (more on that below). The advances in medicine over the last several decades mean that people have more decisions to make about their end-of-life care than they ever have before. That makes it even more important for individuals to start considering what’s most important to them now.
Not everyone feels ready to have these sorts of conversations with their loved ones. But waiting too long can create a different kind of anxiety. So I spoke with four experts — a doctor specializing in neurology and palliative care, a death doula, a bioethicist, and the leader of an initiative to help patients and their families discuss end-of-life wishes — about how to start having these crucial conversations.
She said she had something to tell me but that she was afraid. I reached for her trembling hand, telling her sweetly, naïvely, that it would be...