How do I talk to my elderly father about dying?

A fellow caregiver asked...

How do I talk to my 80+ year-old father about dying?

Expert Answer

Martha Clark Scala has been a psychotherapist in private practice since 1992, with offices in Palo Alto and San Francisco, California. She regularly writes about grief and loss, the necessity of self-care, and substance abuse. Her e-newsletter, "Out on a Limb," is available to subscribers through her website.

You will need to tap into your own experience and instincts on this. Some people anticipating their death--either due to illness, injury, or age--want to talk about it. Some people really don't. Sometimes it's necessary to have these types of conversations whether the person wants to or not. However, it's generally best if you honor your father's comfort level.

You might wonder how you can gauge his comfort level without bringing up the topic. Think about your experiences throughout your life with your father. Has he been someone who likes to talk about things happening in his life? Has he been open about his past, his life, medical issues, feelings? If so, he's more likely to be open to talking about dying than the type of father who is either very formal with his kids and doesn't discuss anything of a personal nature or someone who has in some way been formidable--unavailable, difficult temperament, not in touch with his feelings.

Spend some time thinking about what you specifically want to discuss and accomplish in the conversation. Do you want to know how your father feels about his impending death? Do you want to know what his wishes are for medical care and intervention? Disposition of his body? Funeral or memorial service? His directions estate planning? For example, if you realize that your primary questions relate to what your father's wishes are for his medical care, then you would tailor your question to increase the odds of getting a satisfying answer.

Finally, consider how might you broach the topic. Unless you are from a family with extremely open lines of communication, just asking a challenging question with no build-up might yield less helpful results or answers.

Consider a preface that would introduce the topic and help you assess your father’s readiness and willingness to discuss. For example, "Dad, I've got something I'd like to discuss with you. I'm not sure if you want to talk about it with me, but I just thought I'd ask. Are you comfortable talking about death and dying?" Or "Are you comfortable talking about (fill in the blank)?" By bringing up the topic this way, you give your father permission to say: "No, I'm not ready" Or" "Maybe; it depends on what you want to ask." Or "Yes, ask away."

Understand though, that by asking about his willingness to discuss dying, you must be prepared to handle and respect the response: yes, no, or maybe.