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Why the holiday season is the time to talk about end-of-life planning

There are some conversation topics best left off the table around the holidays. We’re often taught for instance that it’s not polite to talk politics and religion at the dinner table. And yet most of us have probably sighed our way through a holiday dinner sitting next to that one crazy uncle who always goes there. When you think about it, and how often (or rather, not often) families turn to talk of death and how to plan for it, you might think it tops the list of taboo subjects. But even not talking about end-of-life stuff is not talked about. 

At any time of year, it’s incredibly stressful to contemplate the inevitable end of life—for ourselves and the ones we love. So it’s no wonder we imagine that actually talking about death would be equally stressful and unpleasant. No one (well, maybe the Grinch) wants to bring stress and unpleasant feelings in the midst of holiday cheer. “Thanks for the wool socks, Mom and Dad! Oh, and do you want to be buried or cremated?” 

This year in particular, with all its strains and stresses, the conversation may seem even harder to start. At the same time, having an end-of-life plan feels more urgent than ever. Death is top of mind right now for most of us, as we found in our recent publication American Attitudes Toward Death in the Time of Coronavirus, which reported that more than half of us are thinking more about our mortality since the pandemic. Our research also suggests that the best thing you can do for yourself and your loved ones — especially in times when you’re made more aware of the prospect of death — is to talk about it and make a plan.

It can not only save your loved ones thousands of dollars, it brings everyone peace of mind – in fact, 73% of people who’ve begun the conversation about end-of-life with their loved ones describe the experience as productive, reassuring, and positive.

Here at Better Place Forests, we talk about end-of-life matters with each other and our customers and their families pretty much every day, and we’ve noticed that around the holidays in particular, there seems to be greater hesitation to broach the subject. We’ve also seen what happens when families do lean in to this conversation, and it’s an awesome thing to witness — meaningful sharing, unexpected expressions of love and care, and often a palpable sense of a deepened connection and relieved anxiety. As painful as it may seem to initiate the conversation, an open discussion with your family about how you want your death handled can actually be a very positive experience. It also saves families a lot of financial and emotional stress in the future to not have to manage end-of-life plans for a loved one during a time of loss.

The secret that those of us who’ve had end-of-life conversations know: It’s actually not a downer at all. It’s a conversation about life and what matters most to us. It invites us to think, reflect, feel and ask each other essential questions not only about how we want our death handled but also what we value, who we are, and what we want the final chapter of our life story to be. 

How to have the talks

This holiday season, without all the hustle and bustle of holiday parties, trips to the mall, and travel plans, we have some extra time to reflect on what's important to us. But as many families are gathering around their computer screens rather than the family hearth — not the ideal setting for a profound conversation — it takes a little extra consideration to bring these reflections to the surface in a way that feels natural. 

A great place to start: with yourself! Ask yourself the kinds of questions that help you consider your own meaningful legacy and then plan to share your answers with your family. You might take our Readiness Quiz and share it with your family along with some (positive and life-affirming) thoughts about what it means to you to think ahead about your own plans. Other good questions to consider (and some of our own answers to these questions) that are great fodder for bringing warmth and connection to the conversation:

- What are some of your family's favorite shared memories? (Being at our grandparents house, going to a nearby forest for a family hike, going on a family trip somewhere special)

- What is most important to each of you in your life? (Family, pets, meaningful work)

- What makes your lives meaningful? (Doing meaningful work, making art, being outdoors and in nature, being with loved ones, your spiritual practice)

- If you could choose one or two important ways you would always be remembered by those you love, what would they be? (Caring and loved, at peace, connected to something bigger than ourselves)

We know quite a few families who go on a hike or other outdoor adventure after indulging in a big holiday meal. Maybe this year, especially if you can’t be physically together, you suggest a Virtual Forest Tour with one of our forest stewards as a way to “get out in nature” together. You can learn about the native tree species and other plant and animal life in the forest, learn about our mission for conservation, and see the trees and hear the stories of other families who’ve chosen to make this beautiful forest part of their own family’s legacy.

If you think your family is ready for a more pragmatic discussion, you might share our Modern Guide to End-of-Life Options, a step-by-step guide that helps you start to answer three key questions — what you want to happen to your remains, where you want your resting place, and how you want to mark this transition? This resource can help demystify the process of making an end-of-life plan with open-ended questions designed to start the conversation and begin to identify what an ideal end-of-life plan looks like for you. 

Having a positive, honest, life-affirming conversation about death and end-of-life planning can be a wonderful thing. And congratulations if your family is able to take that step this holiday season! Turning that conversation into an actual plan is the essential next step, and one that can also feel intimidating. It’s a lot to process all in one go, so if you need to approach your planning in steps, that’s okay. Try ending your conversation with a few actionable steps that you and your family members will take. Maybe make it part of your New Year’s resolutions for 2021!

Even if all you do this holiday season is to take one meaningful action towards making a solid end-of-life plan, you’ll be on the right path. Even one small initiative action can get the ball rolling and before you know it, you have an end-of-life plan that both relieves your loved ones of a tremendous future burden (no matter how far in the future) and expresses who you are and what’s important to you.

For more thoughtful advice on how to have this conversation, check out Jen Doll’s post for Better Place Forests, How to Talk to Loved Ones About End-of-Life Plans.

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