Claire Riley, a Conversation Coach with the Conversation Project in Boulder County, tells this poignant story about how her birthday gift united her siblings when their mother was dying.

Early in 2004, my single sister Kathy invited us to join her at the family home in Upstate New York to celebrate her 50thbirthday, us meaning just the original 10 siblings and our parents — no spouses, children or grandchildren. And the invitation was for 8 days. We all gladly accepted!

Each one was assigned a partner and a day to be in charge of food and entertainment. The food was delicious and the planned events creative and fun. Kathy and I took our turn last. Being the only nurses in the whole family, we chose to do a “workshop” on Advance Directives. Our parents were now in their late seventies and although healthy, we both knew the importance of documentation of wishes and sharing of the documented wishes. They all politely agreed to participate, holding their breath perhaps, but willing.

We presented the material and then broke into teams of 2 to discuss what each was thinking and how that might be recorded.  We encouraged all to complete the forms right there in our living room as they could always change their minds and redo. Some did, some were not quite ready. But when we returned to the larger circle of 12, we asked Mom and Dad (who had paired together and were ready) if they could share with us their thoughts. It was a rich and productive conversation that lasted hours, with laughter and tears, questions and curiosities. The fear subsided as the normalcy of talking about death and end of life decision making became more comfortable.

My Mom and Dad died in 2007 and 2010 respectively. They both died at home with hospice care from heart related events. When the time came to “honor” their wishes, there were some in the family who questioned if this was really the “time”  or felt “something medical had to be done.” The others of us could recall for them that lovely afternoon in the family living room where they told us how they envisioned dying and what they valued about life. We knew that they had given us a tremendous gift in being so clear about what to do at the time of death.  In retrospect, we all, the survivors, came to the conclusion that we provided them each with the space and the grace to die in their own time peacefully. I am forever grateful to my whole family for the courage and the thoughtfulness of that beautiful day. That family conversation turned out to be a valuable gift for us all.

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