Most of us plan in life – wedding preparations, higher education costs, vacations and other life events. However, the majority of Americans do not plan for their own funeral arrangements. A 2010 survey conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association found that only 25 percent of adults have made arrangements for their own funeral. However, 66 percent of adults indicated that they would choose to arrange their own funeral service.
A number of conversations are inherently difficult – that first romantic breakup as a teenager, having the birds-and-bees talk with your children or telling loved ones about a divorce. The most difficult conversation, however, might just be talking about the end of your life – talking about death. There are a number of reasons people avoid this discussion. Understanding why you’re avoiding it can help you work up the courage to have this important conversation with people who are close to you. Here are six reasons why people avoid this topic:
- We don’t feel prepared – Maybe we are in debt, have not saved enough or do not know how our children would manage financially if we died. These uncertainties can keep us from discussing death – or even preparing for it by writing a will. We do not want to think about how we overspent on our house, don’t have enough life insurance or haven’t planned (or pre-paid) our funeral.
- It is unsettling to think about our mortality – The finality and uncertainty that surrounds death can be frightening, even for people of faith. Most of us attempt to put it out of our minds on a daily basis. Attending funerals, seeing headlines about a relevant tragedy or having a health scare can put too bright of a spotlight on death. While the idea of living every day as if it is your last might sound great in a song, a constant awareness of death can leave most of us feeling anxious and uncomfortable.
- We don’t want to traumatize our loved ones – We believe that discussing our death will be unsettling to those around us. We remember how distressed we felt when we had to face the fact that our loved ones wouldn’t live forever. We typically care a great deal about those closest to us and don’t want to see them upset or sad. That makes it seem reasonable – and perhaps even for the best – to avoid talking about death with them.
- We fear a family dispute – Talking about death in most families is a tough conversation, whether discussing end-of-life planning, funeral wishes, inheritance matters, etc. Perhaps you want to be cremated but know your family is against the idea. Or you do not want certain medical treatments if you become seriously ill. These issues – along with discussions about inheritances – can make tempers flare, leave feelings hurt and destroy relationships.
- It makes us think about all we haven’t accomplished – We haven’t taken that trip to Europe, finished our degree, learned to cook, hit a hole-in-one, or held our granddaughter. That can prompt anxiety, sadness and, in some cases, even depression. Most of us subconsciously believe that we will live for a long time – regardless of our age or health. Thinking about and discussing our mortality forces a self-evaluation process and life review that is unnerving for many of us.
- We feel bad about asking loved ones to do work on our behalf – Talking about death can inevitability lead to discussions about the work to be done afterward. Who will deal with funeral arrangements, who will serve as executor of the estate, who will clear out and sell the home, deal with finances, and on and on? Settling an estate typically requires tremendous time and energy. Many of us feel bad about handing off all this work to someone, especially because we won’t be there to help. As a result, sometimes it is easier to avoid the topic altogether.
While these perceptions are all fair and reasonable, avoiding the death discussion does not make potential issues go away. It simply delays – and often exacerbates – them. If your loved ones are uncertain about what your true wishes are after you have died, it can add to family turmoil at an already sad and stressful time.
Think about this: If two of your loved ones disagree on who will get an item, wouldn’t you like to be there to understand their feelings and make sure the dispute is resolved quickly and fairly? Candid conversations now will help ensure that you will be able to keep family relationships as strong as possible after you have died.
And remember, almost no estate – or life, for that matter – is ever completely in order because our lives are always changing. If you wait until everything is decided, organized and perfect, you likely will never even take the first step of talking with your loved ones about your end-of-life and after-death wishes.
By discussing your wishes – and documenting them with the help of an estate attorney – you are taking great strides toward keeping the peace among your loved ones after you have died.
Ashley Gerwig, MA, NCC, is a writer and nationally certified psychotherapist. She serves as the director of communications for executor.org. She has more than 20 years of writing experience and has worked for various publications, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Executor.org is a free resource for executors to help them better understand the role, track their progress, and store important information as they settle an estate.