Talking with your parents: Part 2—What to say and how to say it

“You’re going to die, I’m going to die, we’ll all die someday…so…what do you want when you die?”

This line may or may not work with your folks. So how do you even begin? Below you’ll find 7 actionable tactics on how to start this conversation.  You know your loved ones; let that knowledge guide you on which one or combination of these tactics makes the most sense for you and your family.

(If you haven’t read Part I of this series, which helps prepare you for talking about this, read it here.)

Tactic #1: Use the Cake app as an icebreaker

We designed the Cake app to be the easiest way to talk about about end-of-life planning.  

If you do it yourself, and share it with your loved ones, that might be a great way to start the conversation.  See Part 3 for more concrete details on how to do this.

Tactic #2: Explain the trigger

“Dad, I talked to a financial planner recently about how to get my affairs in order. It made me think that this might be important for you and Mom too. Can I ask you about that?”

Sometimes a life event or something you learn about triggers you to think about mortality.  Some examples:

  • Reading the news
  • Career changes
  • Experiencing loss of a friend, family member, pet, or even a distant acquaintance
  • Having a near-death experience
  • Getting married or divorced
  • Thinking about starting a family
  • Knowing someone who becomes ill or injured

Sharing why the topic of end-of-life is on your mind can be a natural way to start.

Tactic #3: Entice with interesting content

“Mom, I thought this was interesting and thought you might too. Can we talk about it?”

Here is some suggested content that you can share with your parents as a launch-point for conversation:

For the podcast listener:  

For the reader:

For the internet lover:

…see our blog and twitter feed for plenty of other content and inspiration that might be helpful. Some blog posts we recommend to start the conversation:

Tactic #4: Use inspiration

Give an example of good planning and how that affected this person and their families. You might already have some examples of people who faced their own mortality and by doing so, helped ease the transition for their loved ones, but if not, here are some:

Tactic #5: Appeal to their practical side

Although we don’t think fear is the best way to convince someone to act, sometimes illustrating the negative consequences of not preparing can be an effective way to get your parents to address this topic. It all depends on the temperament of your loved ones.  

Give an example of lack of planning and how that affected another person. You might have some examples that you know already, but if not, here are some:

Tactic #6: Share your worry

“Mom, after what Uncle John has gone through, I’ve been worrying a  lot about what will happen if you or Dad get sick. Can we talk about it?”

There doesn’t always need to be a specific event or reason you want to talk about end-of-life. One way to start is to start from a place of worry. Doctors use this type of language a lot. Saying, “I’m worried that…” feels warmer than language like “I’m concerned…” or “I’m afraid…”, because you worry with someone.

Find a piece of the broader topic that your parent is willing to discuss. You could be as open-ended as, “Is there anything you and Mom are worried about as you’re planning for retirement?” If they ask, “What do you mean?”, you can clarify: “Anything around medical issues, finances, or things that we as your kids should know about.”

Tactic #7: Do it yourself first

“Dad, I’ve been doing some end-of-life planning myself.  Do you want to hear what my preferences are?”

If you plan for end-of-life yourself, it takes away a lot of the stigma that it is only something that elderly people do. No one is exempt from death, and no one can control exactly when and how it goes down. It’s better to be prepared.  The bonus benefit of planning is that thinking about end-of-life actually makes you live better now, by giving you clarity on what’s most important to you!  End-of-life preferences are really just life preferences, with the added clarity of a zoomed-out perspective.

You can use the free Cake app to get started today.

How are doctors trained to have difficult conversations?

All the examples above include a question and asking permission to talk about it. It’s a technique oncologists often use in a communication program called VitalTalk, which teaches doctors how to talk about serious illnesses and end-of-life. Asking permission helps you know if someone is ready to talk about this topic. It also gives a sense of importance to it, and if they are ready, you can really engage.  

Doctors are also trained to not talk too much, and to ask the patient to tell them more. You can use these same techniques to enhance your conversation with your parents.

With uncomfortable silences we often feel compelled to keep talking, especially if this is a conversation you’ve been wanting to have for a long time. But it’s really a conversation to learn what your parents have been thinking about.

Sitting with the emotions that arise and letting your loved one continue to talk can be a very revealing thing. Ask your parents if there’s anything they specifically want to talk about. At the end, you can check to make sure you understood everything by summarizing.

What if your parent still doesn’t want to talk about it?  

It may not hurt to ask why. You’ll at least get a sense of where the anxiety comes from, indirectly.

“No worries, Mom, we don’t need to talk about this now. Can you tell me what’s the main reason you don’t want to?

Maybe they would feel more comfortable in a different time or place, or you’ll realize that they’ll accept talking about health but that finances are a sticking point. There’s no need to cover everything at once–this can take time.  

There are many online resources to help, including The Conversation Project, PREPARE, and others mentioned in our post on advance care conversations!

Break the ice with CAKE: continue to Part 3 for sample conversation and e-mail templates to explain to your loved one how CAKE works.


Have you already had the conversation?

Let us know how it went!  We want to hear from you about what worked and didn’t work–tell us your stories!

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