Just as my fellow Gen Xers are passing through middle age, our Boomer parents are at or approaching their 70s. Without a doubt, my parents are leading considerably fuller lives than their parents, but they are, for sure, closer to the end than to the beginning – and none of us is particularly at ease with that. And it’s why, over the past year or so, my parents, my sister and I have talked more about what they want, should they become terminally ill or unable to care for themselves.
These discussions are frank – uncomfortably so at times – but necessary. Though a world of advice exists on breaking the ice for these conversations with parents, my folks and I found common ground in Atul Gawande’s bestseller Being Mortal. Gawande is a surgeon, writer and public health researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. In Being Mortal, Gawande writes extensively about end of life – not just for the aging, but for the terminally ill as well.
I’d read the book on the recommendation of my boss, who is the mother of two adult daughters herself and in her early 60s, and then I suggested it to my parents. Turns out, they listened to the audio book together on a drive up to visit my husband, three daughters and me. When they arrived, we talked about it. A lot.
Of course, what stuck with them (death for the aging, long-term care and assisted living) was different than what stuck with me (death for the terminally ill who are young), but we were both taken by one of the premises of the book: YODO – you only die once.
The somber cousin of YOLO, our children’s generation’s slang for “you only live once,” YODO implies a thoughtfulness that’s lacking in its sunnier kin. YOLO says to jump out of that plane. To live on the edge. To eat the cake. To indulge. There’s a recklessness associated with it.
But think about dying only once and decisions are different. YODO says plan for death. Not in a macabre way, but accepting that death will happen and planning to die – and live – accordingly. It goes beyond making financial plans for our spouses and children. It forces us to consider how we want to die if we are among those who know the end is coming sooner than we’d hoped.
With my parents facing their own mortality – nearly all of their friends’ parents are gone and some of their friends have passed – I’ve thought about mine, too.
I don’t need to dwell on it for sure – it’s not likely that my husband or I will fall to an incurable disease in the near term, but it’s certainly not impossible. We have our will in place, so the finances are in order. But we hadn’t thought through the what-ifs of terminal illness until we read Gawande’s book. Do we fight disease at all costs if we have a poor prognosis? Would we participate in clinical trials? Are we willing to compromise our last bits of quality of life for a minimal chance of survival? As parents of young children, we know that our answers to these questions will shape their memories of us, if our lives don’t prove as long and full as we want them to be.
I’m glad now that I have some understanding of what my parents want just before their lives end and what will happen next. And it’s been worthwhile to begin thinking about death as a parent myself. Even if our feelings change over time about our own wishes, there is value in starting the conversation sooner rather than later with spouses, friends and our parents.
Sure, we all know that death is coming. Few of us know how or when, but its inevitability doesn’t let us off the hook. After all, whatever thought we can give to what’s quite literally the last thing we do may, at the very least, be our final act of parenting for the ones we leave behind.
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