&l;p&g;Talking about death is not easy. Most people avoid it. Clients often only address the topic once they have been diagnosed with a life threatening illness. And sometimes even then they refuse to discuss it. When my own father was in the hospital dying, he did not talk about his death. He just kept writing on his yellow legal pad, making to do lists, until he died.
&l;p class=&q;tweet_line&q;&g;Talking to your kids about death is best done before an illness is diagnosed and before you are in the hospital. Usually it works best if you can pepper it into the routine moments of life and the &a;ldquo;conversation&a;rdquo; definitely can be helped along with humor.
Even though my father did not speak about his death when he was dying, we knew his intentions. Once we were old enough, he would often tell us not to keep him alive as a &a;ldquo;vegetable,&a;rdquo; and to just take him in the backyard and shoot him. We knew he was not advocating for us to commit murder. He just wanted to get his point across. Don&a;rsquo;t keep him on life support. We didn&a;rsquo;t.
&l;img class=&q;dam-image getty size-large wp-image-840880040&q; src=&q;https://specials-images.forbesimg.com/dam/imageserve/840880040/960×0.jpg?fit=scale&q; data-height=&q;497&q; data-width=&q;960&q;&g; Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Other clients have told me similar stories over the years. One client had a boat named Sunshine. He told his kids when the time was right to put him in Sunshine and push him out into the Atlantic. Another told his children to smother him with a pillow when he was sleeping. Dr. Kevorkian&a;rsquo;s name comes up a lot, as do the states that have death with dignity laws (California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia). Most people do not want to linger. Only once in all my years of practicing law did I have a client tell me to keep him alive at all cost, no matter what. He was young and intended to live forever.
Most states have laws that help you express your dying wishes to your family, and allow you to name who you want making those decisions. Every state law is different, but these are the general documents you need:
&l;/p&g;&l;ul&g;&l;li&g;Health care proxy or health care directive. This document names the person you want to make health care decisions for you if you are unable to make them for yourself. Sometimes the health care proxy will also include language to guide the agent in making the decision. It can also limit the health care agent&a;rsquo;s ability to act. I once had a client who did not want to have a blood transfusion for religious reasons.&l;/li&g;
&l;li&g;Living will. A living will can provide additional guidance to the person you have named to make decisions for you. It can include a broad statement not to keep you alive on life support if you have a terminal illness or injury and your death is imminent and the life support will only delay the dying process. Or, a living will can specifically address what to do in various medical situations.&l;/li&g;
&l;li&g;HIPAA waiver. This is important because it gives the person you have named as your decision maker access to your health care records under the federal HIPAA laws.&l;/li&g;
Life support questions are just one of the considerations in discussing end of life issues. Other issues include how to dispose of your body. Do you want to be cremated? What about burial? Should your ashes be scattered in the lake you have summered at since you were born? Or, do you want to be buried in the family plot? Do you prefer a celebration of your life, or a more formal funeral mass?
It may be helpful to use a discussion about these documents to segue into a conversation with your children about your dying wishes. There is no one best way to tackle this difficult topic. It depends on your family&a;rsquo;s dynamics. A big family meeting may work for your family, or it may create more anxiety. You may prefer to approach each child separately. If you want a more controlled environment, you can bring your children to your lawyer&a;rsquo;s office to initiate the conversation. There is no right way, but I recommend broaching the subject casually during life&a;rsquo;s quiet moments if possible. Mentioning what happened with your own parents may be a good lead into starting a dialogue.
Make sure your kids know you have executed your documents, where they are located and the name and contact information for your attorney. You can also give your kids copies of your documents.
When the time came for my mother to make the decision to end life support for my dad, she kept repeating that he had a living will and this is what he wanted. In all my years of practicing law, and after all the living wills and health care proxies I had prepared, it was not until that moment that I realized how important they are. They are not really for the person who is dying, they are for those people who have to make the decision. Thinking about these issues (no matter how tough) and making sure your loved ones know what you want will not only give you peace of mind, but will make their lives easier in the end.