5 questions to ask when doing end-of-life planning

By Susan Goldberg | April 28, 2016 | Last updated on April 28, 2016
4 min read

When Kathy Kortes-Miller first proposed “death education” as her Ph.D. research topic, no one in her graduate program in education had ever heard of the subject. “On the first day of classes, when I brought up what I wanted to study, the room went silent,” says the self-described “unconventional death educator.” “Like, crickets. It was very uncomfortable.”

Finally, one of Kortes-Miller’s professors spoke up.

“Ahhh,” he said. “Deaf education. So you want to work with the hearing impaired?”

That was a light-bulb moment for Kortes-Miller, one that crystallized for her the immense resistance people have to acknowledging — let alone talking about — death. “It was almost literally as though people couldn’t hear me talking about the end of life.”

And that’s a problem for everyone, says the Thunder Bay, Ont.-based educator and speaker, who managed to complete her doctorate anyway. She is now writing a book on death education, which she defines as “the education we could and do receive about what is a very normative life event.” Death education, she says, can help prepare us for the end of life, while challenging us to examine our beliefs and attitudes towards death, and how we came to them.

Improved death education, says Kortes-Miller, allows people to feel more empowered to talk about the dying process, and to feel more supported and cared for at the end of their lives. That, in turn, leads to measurable outcomes, including less reported pain, fear, and anxiety for both the dying person and that person’s loved ones and caregivers.

Fortunately, financial and legal advisors are well-placed to talk about death. It is, after all, what estate-planning professionals do for a living (no pun intended). And they have a fairly captive and motivated audience in clients, who wouldn’t be in the room if they didn’t have at least some motivation to confront end-of-life issues.

Still, it can be easy to focus discussions on pre- and post-death events (having enough money to last between the end of work and the end of life; who gets what after we’re gone), and less on the process of dying itself. But talking openly about dying, says Kortes-Miller, would allow professionals to better serve their clients. Here are some questions for advisors to answer themselves, and to start the conversation with their clients:

  • What’s been your experience with dying and death thus far? Everyone, she says, has personal stories about, and experiences with, death; it’s our “informal death education.” Articulating these experiences allows us to understand some of the origins of our values, hopes and beliefs about the end of life.
  • What did you learn from those experiences? What was successful about them? What would you do differently? Most clients, says Kortes-Miller, will have both good memories and regrets. For example, they may cherish the opportunity they had to say good-bye properly, or deeply mourn the fact that they didn’t. They may wish that they had better understood the final physical stages of dying, or that they had had more (paid or unpaid) support with caregiving near the end. (“There are a lot of really long, and sometimes scary, nights,” says Kortes-Miller.) They may want to ensure that they don’t leave their loved ones with the burden of planning a funeral or deciphering the terms of the will. Advisors, who tend to be witnesses to many families’ death experiences, can also use their personal and broader experiences to help guide or refine their clients’ plans, including long-term care insurance, planning for in-home care, and powers of attorney for personal care.
  • What scares you about being sick? That’s different than what scares people about dying, which tends to be more existential. In contrast, says Kortes-Miller, “When people talk about their fears about being sick, they talk about things like not wanting somebody else to wipe their bum, being scared they won’t recognize people, not being able to make decisions for themselves.” When people can identify and are upfront about their fears around death, it’s easier to make plans to address and ease those fears.
  • If you had to choose between quality of life and quantity of life, what would you pick? Again, a client’s and an advisor’s informal death education can help shape the answer to this question, making planning and decision-making easier for family members and those who hold power of attorney.
  • What important to you right now? What kind of legacy do you want to leave? Financial advisors and estate planners tend to be good at asking this question when it comes to finances. It’s important, also, to consider the societal and emotional impact of death: How do you want what is ultimately a social event to be acknowledged? What conversations do you want to have while you can? How do you want your family and friends to feel about your death?

Aging baby boomers, says Kortes-Miller, will be driving these conversations as they seek the autonomy and quality in death that they have achieved during their lifetimes. The Supreme Court of Canada’s recent reversal of the ban on physician-assisted death means that we’ll all be talking and thinking more about the end of life. Not surprisingly, Kortes-Miller is all for it:

“When we believe that how we die matters, we are more likely to make plans, have important conversations and ultimately die with less regret. We will still grieve our losses, but we will also find solace in knowing that our loved ones died with a sense of control and that they were well cared for.”

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Susan Goldberg

Susan is an award-winning freelance writer and editor based in Thunder Bay, Ont. She has been writing about personal finance for more than 20 years.