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The Benefits of Talking to Your Family About Death

July 12, AD2014 7 Comments

My family has never been one to shy away from talking about death. A number of factors contributed to that being a normal part of the fabric of our family, and my late husband used to have something he would say regularly. He would reference his wishes for his eventual death by saying, “I hope I don’t get really old or sick, I want to be walking around in my house one day and my heart will just explode.”

That memory was quite vivid in my mind as the Medical Examiner explained his death to me and my daughter, because within a very narrow margin, he got his wish. I remember thinking that I would have preferred that he had focused more on the “world peace,” “cure for cancer,” or even “win the lotto” wishes more than this one. In the end, though, his speaking of it eventually brought us solace when we remembered how he had expressed his hopes for his own death.

I am told, however, that many families don’t speak much of death—either ones form the past or their own deaths in the future.

I believe that our Catholic faith can help us have a very healthy attitude about death. We can learn about others who died before us when we learn of the Saints, and we can continue to work out our salvation as we stay mindful (but not obsessive) of the fact that our own earthly lives are finite. I find Ash Wednesday, with its sobering words of, “remember man that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” a helpful and meaningful ritual. I really enjoy the conversations that spring up along the day with people who remark about my ashes.

In Healthcare, we can often see agonizing situations result when people don’t know what their loved ones wishes were before the person loses the capacity to communicate. There are documents and processes that have been developed to assist in these circumstances, but those documents are most useful when the topic has been discussed openly in detail within families.

How do you open up a conversation about this and when? I suggest “the sooner the better” as I surely didn’t expect a health crisis that would leave me a widow at 47.

It is a misconception that a “Directive” of any sort can only be used to tell Doctors to stop or limit care. I have heard that this sometimes frightens Catholics away from creating these documents. In reality, if you wish, you can use an “Advance Directive” to insure that you are cared for in a manner consistent with Catholic teaching. Any of these documents is your tool, with the most important goal of making your wishes become known so that they can best be followed.

Which of these will communicate your desires to have your end-of-life decisions made consistent with Catholic guidelines?

I am an enthusiastic advocate of every Catholic making him- or herself familiar with this document: US Conference of Catholic Bishops Ethical and Religious Directives for Healthcare

There are also other helpful online sites that can give us reliable resources: this EWTN site has a printable Health Care Proxy and Advance Directive at the bottom.

When in doubt about something, please consider using this site (or working with a Priest or Deacon who may be advising your family) on areas of concern: National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Our Catholic faith does a wonderful job of helping us value life at its start, during the time we live it and nurturing it to a natural end, consistently respectful of the dignity God gave us. The Church assists us with guidelines that create healthy boundaries for us when we might be lost in crisis or confused. Please be familiar with what is here for you so that your family can best prepare for the physical and spiritual challenges that come with end of life.

My encouragement in this article is to start a conversation with your family about your wishes, and right here is a good place to start. I humbly acknowledge that experts may visit here and have wisdom and expertise to share. Please know I welcome conversation and enlightenment on this topic as a whole.

Filed in: Life, Medicine

About the Author:

Tammy Ruiz has been a Nurse for 28 years and spent most of her career in Neonatal Intensive Care. For 9 years, she has been a Perinatal Bereavement Coordinator - caring for women and families suffering miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death and SIDS. Part of her work involves assisting parents in preparing for births when the baby has received the diagnosis of a life limiting condition (often called "Perinatal Hospice"). In addition to her Nursing education, she studied (but did not become certified in) Clinical Pastoral Education at a Catholic Hospital in the midwest. She has been on EWTN and speaks regularly to Physicians & Nurses on the topic of perinatal loss care. Her work has been translated into Polish, Spanish, Czech, French, Italian & Japanese. Her career was both fragmented and enhanced by having 14 different jobs because of moves for her husband who was an active duty Officer in the USMC. A convert to the Catholic Church, she was widowed after 26 years of marriage. She has 3 quasi-adult children and one super-cute grandchild.

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  • Allison Grace

    As soon as I saw the title, I hoped you were the author, Tammy. We certainly talk about death, but have never drawn up documents. I’m going to save this and have a peek at your links with my husband on our coffee date tomorrow (I hope he doesn’t have anything else in mind to talk about!). Thank you for writing!

    • Tammy Ruiz

      Your kind words are appreciated ! I suggest you do a bit of googling & printing…you will find a document that allows you to get your wishes on paper in a meaningful way. Some states have specific documents (so search for them by state) and specific guidelines BUT as a physician I respect points out, even if it is written on a napkin from hooters, if the core components for an Advance DIrective are there, it IS an Advance DIrective.

      Each of us may have something based on experience that will be compelling for us. I have personally decided that I consider long term/chronic ventilator dependance to be a treatment that I would personally consider “excessive and burdensome” and not something I would be willing to submit myself to. Another person may live what they would consider to be a meaningful life where this treatment would be considered a life sustaining blessing. That is a good example of the latitude that exists in each of us having autonomy in the face of severe illness. As per the Directives, we are each directed to pursue treatments that would be reasonable and prudent.

  • james

    As a volunteer hospice worker let me add that if you want a professional caring team to help see you and your family through this passage, don’t wait until the attendent signs are immenent. Way too often the calls that we get are within hours of someones passing.

    • Tammy Ruiz

      You are very right. Hospice CAN be organized at the very end but in doing that you can miss the helpful processes that assist people in those important steps. It doesn’t make the steps not happen, it causes you to end up doing them alone or with no guidance.

  • David Peters

    Thanks for this article Tammy. It is practical and sensitive at the same time.

  • Tammy Ruiz

    I realized in re-reading that I asked the question “how” do you start the conversation but I then addressed “when”.

    “When” should be soon but with some consideration if your loved ones are temporarily overwhelmed by something pressing that doesnt need to be complicated by unexpected end-of-life talk.

    “How” could be done a a thousand ways from taking ones adult children out to lunch to mentioning an interesting article on the topic to using news stories of end-of-life situations that aren’t going well as a spring board to let your family know that you don’t wish such chaos on them should you have a health crisis. There is something out there called the Conversation Project http://theconversationproject.org/

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