Resistance to starting funeral planning conversations can come from members of both older and younger generations. Adult children will frequently say things like “Don’t be morbid” when a parent wants to talk about putting their affairs in order.
Kenneth J. Doka, PhD, MDiv, is a Professor of Gerontology at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle and Senior Consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America (HFA). I’ve met him at the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) annual conference. He recently wrote an excellent essay at the Huffington Post on the topic of “The End-of-Life Paradox.”
Some highlights from the article:
It seems that whenever Marian visits her dad, he wants to go over certain things: where his will is located, where to find his stocks and bank book, and even where to find the charcoal suit that he wants used when he is laid out in his casket. To Marian, such conversations are morbid, distressing and perplexing. At 82, her father is relatively healthy, independent and maintains an active life. Why does he always seem to focus on death — especially when she is around?
Often adult children experience what I call this end-of-life paradox. Their older parents want to speak about the logistics of death in detail. Or, maybe they want to review end-of-life care plans contained in advance directives, just at the time when it is most difficult emotionally and spiritually for their adult child to listen to such conversations.
The end-of-life paradox results from the different places the generations are in their own spiritual development and how each makes sense both of life and death. Older persons recognize that even if they are active and healthy, they are nearing the end point of life. Victor Marshall, a sociologist, used the term “awareness of finitude” to describe the appreciation for the life cycle that older people may exhibit.
Death is perceived as closer. This does not mean that they expect to die immediately, but rather that they realize that death is part of life. They are reluctant to plan too far into the future. Time is now primarily viewed through the past or in a curtailed vision of the future.
You can often hear it in the subtle shifts in language. My mom, for example, was in good health but older when she began to say to my son, as he planned his marriage, “Hope I’m around to enjoy your wedding day!” At the time, she expressed this hope without fear or anxiety.
The awareness of finitude also often engenders a concern with a good, appropriate death. This means that the person wants to die in a way consistent with their values, wishes or earlier life. For one person, this may mean dying in peace — pain-free and reconciled with others. To another, it may mean fighting with the fates, or others, until the very end.
As individuals contemplate that death, they may want to share that information with others around them. On a practical level, that might mean that older persons are intent on instructing their adult children about their estate, advance directives, and even their wishes about funerals and other rituals.