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Difficult Conversations Made a Little Easier

By Helen McNeal

Executive Director, California State University Shiley Institute for Palliative Care

Ahhhh holiday dinners! Turkey, gravy and Grandma’s famous pumpkin pie with fresh heavy whipping cream. Does it get better than that? In these busy times, it’s just so rare when families and extended families get together for uninterrupted and unhurried conversation. It’s an ideal time to really connect and go  beyond the usual chatter of the great food, the weather, the kids, and the day’s big football game.

Dinner With Palliative CareDuring this holiday season think beyond the turkey and gravy and take the opportunity to have a conversation for which you will be thankful in the future. What is this conversation? It is a conversation about joy and having your voice heard even when you cannot speak for yourself.  When serious illness or long-term disabilities impact everyday life, the conversation needs to take place. How do you find a way to start that conversation long before difficult situations are staring you in the face? It’s really quite simple. Here’s a holiday recipe for starting the conversation.

As you come together, invite everyone to take turns sharing what makes them happy and where they’ve found joy in their lives. This is something to which even the youngest family member at the table can contribute.

Talking about the joys in life can easily lead to a discussion of what it is in the things that bring us joy. This invites everyone to share a bit more deeply about who we are and what makes us unique. It promises to even surprise a few with the hidden story gems that will emerge and what you’ll learn about those you think you know well.

Now, over that wonderful apple pie you’ve been waiting for, there is one final question.

“If something happened and you couldn’t tell us yourself, what would you want us to know about that is important to you in being alive?”

Does this feel like an old friend in new clothes? Yep, it is but the new clothes carry much significance. Unlike the more familiar questions about choices at end-of-life, this is a question that comes from the perspective of living and that makes it a much easier, more palatable question to answer. Don’t be surprised if this gently evolves into a discussion about a beloved family member with an illness or a health challenge to face, and then into very personal sharing of thoughts on individual preferences and choices.

It’s fine to keep this topic on the light side but making sure family members have an idea of what’s important to you and how you’d want to be cared for during a difficult situation is really important.

There is no question that the holidays can bring up a lot of emotions and you can use your best judgment about your family based on their response, but starting the dialogue about living life to the fullest is a way to connect and learn more about the people you love the most. And, when you need to know what’s important to them in life, it’s a conversation you’ll be thankful you had.

A Recipe for Joy

Many of us see joy differently. To some, it might mean, sitting in the backyard watching the grass grow. To others, it could be contemplating their life sitting by a mountain stream with a fishing pole in hand. It’s an interesting discussion. We all take this journey that has a road that eventually ends. How we spend that journey is as individual as we are. Sharing with our loved ones how we envision that journey gives us a better chance of realizing it. We must remember that respect for the dignity and privacy of our family members comes first. But, to initiate this conversation can be a beautiful gift for all who take part in it.

Initiating Important Conversations With Loved Ones

If you’re the conversation initiator, you’ll be surprised at how many possibilities you can find during holidays or other family gatherings.

•    Missing a loved one at holiday events
•    Movies you’ve seen
•    Sermons/seminars
•    Television talk shows, dramas and comedies
•    Medical checkups
•    Family occasions such as baptisms, marriages and funerals
•    Magazines and books

Supporting a Conversation That Continues

It’s only in the movies that everything is neatly wrapped up in a package. The real world is much more complicated. Family conversations stop and start over time. Maybe touching on the subject during family celebrations can be seen as a starting point.

The true objective of family conversation is more than a simple package of papers with advance directives and estate details. Those things matter, because they will guide final actions. But what matters most is to talk with the people you love about decisions relating to the joy you wish to live in the journey of your life.

We never know for sure when the story of our life is going to write its final chapter but we do know what gives us joy. Discussing what brings that joy and how we envision our life is meaningful conversation that helps eliminate difficulties and complications later but also brings families closer together today.

About Helen B. McNeal