It would be very easy to blame an aversion to speaking to our loved ones about their death on the famous British stiff upper lip. The truth, however, is that speaking to someone you love about the end of their life is a struggle that is universal and shared.
Knowing that someone we love is approaching the end can be hard to accept. While in years to come we might wish we had asked deep and profound questions, in reality it is much harder to do. More likely, talk will turn to what’s going on in the news, the football, or how the hospital food tastes.
The VICE journalist John Doran describes in a heartfelt account how, upon facing a trip home to Liverpool to visit his very ill father, he hopes to interview his father about his life, but when the opportunity arrives he quickly changes the subject to his raggedy belt and how it needs replacing instead. It’s off topic and largely unimportant but easier to handle than bringing up the metaphorical elephant in the room.
Why is this? Well, it makes perfect sense doesn’t it that we try and avoid scenarios and situations that will make us deeply upset? On balance it’s much easier to discuss the weather than it is funeral plans or ask about our loved one’s biggest takeaways from life on this planet. Of course, it is. However, by being brave and digging a little deeper there seems to be an opportunity to not only get a deeper insight into your loved one’s life but also to provide some closure in the days after they are gone.
Amy Gibson of the Huffington Post describes a FaceTime conversation with her mother that took an unprecedented and deep turn:
“[It] revealed things I never knew or realized about her. For instance, I learned how old she was when she and my dad divorced (43) and how old she was when her father passed away (14). I knew brush strokes about my mom’s past but didn’t know or remember specifics about some of her most defining moments. A lot of my memories are just that, my memories, memories that are from my vantage point”.
She goes on to explain how the conversation evolved into a deep conversation that revealed her mother’s biggest regrets and lessons in life. Valuable insights that would have gone unsaid without pressing.
Questions to ask your parents
There’s no easy way to instruct someone to navigate this tricky scenario. Everyone’s parents and circumstances are different and what may work for one person might not work for another. But if you can work your way through the apprehension and awkward silences what kind of questions should you ask? Here are some common questions that people who have interviewed their parents have asked:
- – What did your childhood look like?
- – Were you close to your mother and father?
- – What were your grandparents like?
- – What was your time at school like? What subjects did you enjoy?
- – What job did you want to have when you were young?
- – Who were your childhood heroes?
- – Who was your favourite relative growing up?
- – Who was your first good friend?
- – What was your first job?
- – What happy memories will you always cherish?
- – What was the first piece of music you purchased?
- – How old were you when you learned to drive? What was your first car?
- – What advice would you give your younger self?
- – Where was your favourite holiday or place you have visited?
- – Where is your favourite place you’ve lived?
- – What was your second choice for my name?
- – How did you meet my mum/dad?
- – What are your most vivid memories of your wedding day?
- – Have you ever earned any special achievements, medals or prizes?
- – When you look back at the big forks in the road in your life what made you go a particular way?
- – Have you ever done something naughty or mischievous?
- – What was the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
- – If you had to live your life again, what changes would you make?
- – How has society changed since you were young?
- – What do you miss most about life back then?
- – What are your proudest achievements?
- – What do you wish you spent more time doing?
- – What are your hopes and dreams for your children and grandchildren?
- – What’s something you’ve always wanted to tell me?
- – What’s something you’ve always wanted to ask me?
These questions are of course just a starting point, and there may be many other topics you would like to discuss with your loved one. Where possible, and if agreed to, you should try and record the conversation through audio or video, so you can capture their answers for generations to come. You should also be prepared that there might be certain questions that could make your loved one feel upset, and some that they might not feel they want to answer, which you should respect.
Other end of life questions
Besides these interview questions, there are other things that you should discuss with your parents at the end of their lives regarding their wishes. Leaving it too late could mean that you never know exactly what they wanted.
From where they would like to live if their health deteriorates, to how care will be paid for, what happens to their estate and their wishes for funeral arrangements – there is lots to be discussed. In our blog post ‘Tips for speaking to your parents about their end of life wishes’ we go through each conversation in detail, including what you need to cover and how to approach these types of conversations.
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