You Need to Talk About Death with Those You Love—Here’s How

family member holding old woman's hand to talk about death arrangements

“What most concerns you?” the palliative care physician asked, sitting beside my husband’s hospital bed. Gary pointed at me and said, “Leaving her.” He was hospitalized with yet another serious infection because of late-stage cancer, and the doctor was helping him complete the Physicians Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) form.

Back at home, my husband announced that he was going to spend the day teaching me how to survive. I had lessons in online banking and using my phone’s GPS system. But when he retrieved a pipe wrench so I could learn how to unclog a sink, I gave him my best raised-eyebrow look, whereupon all tools were put away.

Gary was relatively young when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It had already metastasized to his lymph system and would eventually show up in his bladder, his bones, his liver. There was no proven cure.

The physicians told us that a patient on average—with his stage cancer, at his age, and in relatively good shape as he was—could expect to live two years beyond diagnosis. Which is infinitely better than, say, eight weeks, right?

So we rearranged a few things in our lives. We started eating more healthfully, increased our physical activity, and got plugged into the local cancer community. We adjusted our attitudes and established a nonprofit with the message of becoming proactive for better quality of life while living with cancer.

Gary, amazing his doctors, insisted on living past the original two-year average. Instead, he lived ten years. Yes. Ten good years.

Funny, though, in all that time living with the knowledge of a terminal disease, we hadn’t talked about death and dying. Perhaps if we don’t talk about death, it won’t happen—much like an ostrich and his patch of sand.

From our experience—even though we started later than we should have—here are five topics couples and families should discuss sooner than later.

5 Conversations You Need to Have About Death and Dying
1. Medical/end-of-life wishes.

I knew my husband wanted no heroic efforts taken should he stop breathing, but it lightened the weight to have this in writing and on file with the medical professionals. For most people, an Advance Directive is sufficient as it appoints a legal health care representative and provides instructions for future life-sustaining treatments. In Gary’s case, being closer to the end, the POLST form served as a summary of the patient’s wishes for end-of-life care.

2. Financial matters.

Through the years, Gary and I had shared the paying of the bills, balancing our bank account, and filing our taxes. But when my husband retired early, he took over managing our finances while I continued to work full-time. There were some financial tools he used that were new to me and I needed to be brought up to speed, i.e., the online banking procedures mentioned above.

3. Tech stuff/side interests.

I was married to a computer geek. We had four websites and my husband was the genius behind it all. He once mentioned a company that hosted our nonprofit website for free. But I had no clue who that was, or who hosted the other three sites. Or from whom we had purchased our domain names. Trust me. These people would want to be paid. Annually. Does your spouse have a side interest or small business that you assume will die right along with him? This is what I thought would happen with our nonprofit. But it didn’t. It simply changed focus. When it comes to side interests or a small business—like, philanthropic work, stamp collecting, or an eBay store—don’t assume anything. Instead, learn what’s going on.

4. Updated legal documents.

The last update on our will was when our children were toddling around. And now one of them had toddlers of her own. Any of your assets that require a beneficiary—such as life insurance or invested funds—will go to the person you named. But if you own property and have not determined the beneficiary(ies), each state has its own set of laws that parcels out properties to nearest relatives. You might consider the possibility of a living trust versus a will. A will can be probated through lengthy and expensive court hearings. A living trust can be used to transfer property and assets to beneficiaries without going through the probate process.

5. Future options.

I once told Gary that I would miss his wisdom. “Who will give advice when I need to make major decisions?” This generated discussions around a few different scenarios—like, if I decided to take an early retirement and moved closer to the kids, could I live on my social security income? Gary even drafted a budget for when he would breathe his last and I would lose his social security income.

Talk about Death—and Create a Strategy from There

My husband died later that year. His passing didn’t take me by surprise, but it was a blow. Because we’re never truly prepared for such a loss, even if we see it coming. But the feelings of being overwhelmed were eased by the earlier discussions about what possibilities were available for my future.

We can’t possibly know the date on which widowhood may slam into us. But what helped a great deal during the early days of my widow season was the thought and care and plans that had been talked about and put into motion beforehand.

How wise would it be to have a strategy in place long before it’s needed? To talk about death and dying and have those hard conversations before our spouses are terminal and lying in hospital beds?

It would be very wise.

What do you do when death sneaks up without warning? When you don’t have a strategy in place? Listen to This Grit and Grace Life’s podcast co-host Julie (formerly Graham) Bender’s own experience of sudden widowhood and how she coped: Julie Graham’s Untold Story of Heartbreak, Healing and Hope – 101

Scroll to Top