You Should Make Your Holiday Gathering More Uncomfortable: Here’s How

Dec 20, 2016

Credit Abraham Schwab

Like many people, I’m looking forward to the end of 2016. I’m not typically one to put much stock into the relatively arbitrary distinction between one calendar year and the next, but I’ve gotten a bit desperate for the iconic figures in my life to stop dying.

The list of iconic deaths in 2016 is intimidating in its length. Here are the ones I remembered off the top of my head without a second’s thought: PrinceBowieAlan RickmanMuhammad Ali, and Leonard Cohen.

Then when I looked, I was ashamed to have failed to remember: Gene WilderElie WieselGwen IfillMerle HaggardAntonin ScaliaAbe Vigoda, and Harper Lee.

And then the others that are, you know, worth a mention: John GlennPat SummittGordie HoweFlorence Henderson, and Arnold Palmer.  And I’m sure I’m not mentioning others who I should—like Anna Dewdney or Sir George Martin and others. 

But the iconic deaths of 2016 aren’t limited to public figures. A member of my in-law’s family died waiting for a liver transplant. He was 27, left behind two young daughters, and his passing has left an indelible mark on the family. My friend and colleague, Sean Philpott-Jones, lost his mother this year as well. Sean had the courage to write about the experience and some lessons he (and the rest of us) should learn from it. 

The most important lesson: you need to start talking about what you want in the twilight of life. You need to talk with your spouse, your parents, your siblings, and your good friends about what gives your life meaning and what they should consider when they make decisions on your behalf. Because odds are, one of them is going to. 

"...You need to start talking about what you want in the twilight of life. You need to talk with your spouse, your parents, your siblings, and your good friends about what gives your life meaning and what they should consider when they make decisions on your behalf. Because odds are, one of them is going to."

And it’s for this reason that I implore you to follow the lead of one of my colleagues. A few years ago, at a holiday gathering, she pushed the conversation with all those gathered together to talk about what they want in the twilight of life. As they approach death, if they can’t make decisions for themselves, what should the decision-makers (their family members, friends, and caregivers) consider as they confront the prospect of deciding that aggressive treatment, that the hope for a cure, and that the endless struggle is no longer the right choice?

Here are a few simple tips for starting these conversations and giving your loved ones the perspective they need to be confident that these decisions represent what you’d want.

First, you should think about and talk about what gives your life meaning. Find the time to consider what you value, what you cherish, and what you enjoy. 

Second, you should acknowledge that it’s not a one-time conversation, but an ongoing discussion: “I’d like to start talking about what I want you to consider if you have to make health care decisions for me.”

Third, you should identify who you’d like to have primary responsibility for making those decisions (and in Indiana, as well as many other states—document who this is): “I’d be most comfortable knowing that my eldest/youngest daughter/son (or whoever else you want) was making the decisions on my behalf.”

Finally, this Sunday on Christmas, when many are gathered, is a great opportunity to start these conversations. Not only will you be able to communicate with many of your loved ones at once, but it will also demonstrate how important these conversations are for you and for the rest of your family. As they put it at begintheconversation.org: "Better to prepare 10 years too early than one day too late."

Abraham Schwab is a Fort Wayne associate professor of philosophy and medical ethicist.

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