14 Apr Talk about Death and Dying: If Teenagers Can Do It, So Can You
There is often a resistance to creating a Living Trust because let’s face it–it’s uncomfortable talking about end-of-life documents, death and loss. Many of us boomers know we should be talking to our aging parents about a Living Trust, but we are reluctant to broach an unpleasant topic, especially if we don’t see them very often.
But our tiptoeing around the subject of death surfaced in a recent New York Times article, Teenagers Face Early Death, on Their Terms. This article wasn’t about old people; rather, it was about teenagers with terminal diseases, facing death at tragically early ages.
Empowered by talking about end-of-life issues
This article revealed that these courageous kids were not tiptoeing around the topic of their sometimes-imminent death, but wanted to be involved in making decisions about how to spend their precious remaining time. In each case, these children are facing terminal illnesses for which there is no cure—they are all too young and have way too many reasons to live.
But these kids with limited time have choices, and they want to make their own decisions. Studies show they prefer to be involved and have not been harmed by any such involvement. Indeed, avoiding talk about death and expectations in the final days exacerbates the teenage patients’ fear and sense of isolation—being able to talk about their pain, loss and their fears has proven to be emotionally healing. By opening up and acknowledging the likelihood of death, the teenage patients feel free to talk about mortality and pain–but also love, friendship and connection.
End-of-life planning guide
One example was a 17-year old girl with melanoma that had metastasized to create disfiguring tumors on her face and organs. A social worker came to her room with a planning guide designed specifically for critically ill young patients, helping them express their preferences for their final days–and afterward.
This guide addressed issues such as:
- If death approached and she could no longer speak, what would she want those who surrounded her to know?
- If visitors arrived when she was asleep, did she want to be woken?
- If they started crying, should they step outside or talk about their feelings with her?
- What were her decisions about life support and where she would die—at home in her own bedroom if at all possible?
- Will there be a memorial or funeral? If a funeral, will this be open-casket, and if so, what will she be wearing?
- While young people likely doesn’t have assets, they do have treasured possessions, and they will want to identify who will inherit a favorite autographed baseball glove, a computer or other digital device, a dog or other pet. It gives these young people comfort knowing that someone they love will be thinking of them as they use these items or take their puppy for a walk.
This planning guide and the additional support from the social worker have proved to be invaluable resources for families, who are often overwhelmed with grief, while still trying to maintain a normal life for the other family members.
Take a lesson from these brave young people
Most of all, this article illustrates that the conversation you’ve been avoiding because the subject of end-of-life issues was just too disturbing or unpleasant, may not be so unwelcome after all. Research shows that these courageous teenagers are empowered by making decisions about how they will die, and it’s a story that has implications for all of us.