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How to manage family arguments about end-of-life care

Preparing for the end of a loved one’s life is never easy. There’s often a flood of emotions that accompany it, from grief and loss to the stress and frustration of dealing with all the logistics. 

While the ideal scenario is that everyone in your family would band together in this challenging time, this unfortunately isn’t always the reality. It’s not uncommon for family conflict to break out in this emotionally charged scenario.

From deciding on the best medical care to preparing the will and arranging the funeral, there’s a lot of moving parts involved in end-of-life planning. It’s likely that there will be a few different opinions on the best way to give your loved one a dignified passing.

With a few simple changes to your approach, you can avoid clashes and get everyone on the same page. 

Whether you’re preparing for the imminent passing of a loved one or it’s already happened, here’s how to handle family arguments about end-of-life care.

Identify key decision makers

There’s a good chance that everyone and their dog will have an opinion on the best end-of-life arrangements for your loved one. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone’s viewpoint is relevant. If you take every opinion on board, it will likely end up as a ‘too many chefs in the kitchen’ situation, where nothing gets resolved.

This is why it’s important to identify the key stakeholders who should be involved in making these arrangements. For example, immediate family, like children or spouses are traditionally involved in the proceedings, while grandchildren, cousins, and partners of children don’t necessarily need to be. 

If your loved one is still alive and able-minded, you may also choose to consult them about who they would like to be involved in their end-of-life planning.

At this stage, you may also choose to appoint roles with the consent of your loved ones. For example, some of the legal appointments around end-of-life planning include:

Medical treatment decision-maker – can manage your medical needs

Enduring power of attorney – can make financial decisions

Enduring guardianship – can make personal and lifestyle decisions

Doing this can ensure everyone has a clear understanding of exactly what their role is and what they have authority on, so nobody steps on anyone else’s toes.

Listen to everyone’s viewpoints

Once you’ve decided whose opinions will be taken into consideration, it’s time to listen to them. It’s really important that everyone has the opportunity to have their preferences heard and respected. Now, if you have a family dynamic where everyone talks over the top of each other, this can be challenging! 

You may want to consider implementing a talking stick (a Native American tradition) where only the person holding the stick can talk, and everyone else must listen until it’s their turn to speak. This helps slow down the conversation and gives the quieter members of the family the chance to be heard, too. 

Face tough conversations head-on

It can be tempting to avoid communicating about end-of-life planning in-person — particularly if you have a complex family dynamic or are separated by distance. 

However, communicating about these important issues via email or text can be rife with issues. You lose many of the visual and verbal cues that you get with face-to-face communication, such as body language, tone, or facial expressions. This can lead to family members misinterpreting the intention of others, which can cause conflict.

Where possible, it’s best to have these conversations in-person or at least via video call. 

Stick to the facts

Humans are emotional creatures at heart, and this is especially true of high-tension situations like the passing of a loved one. Everyone deals with grief in different ways, whether it’s feeling angry or emotionally shutting down. However, in order to reach the best outcome for everyone involved, it’s important to put emotions aside and look at the facts. The same applies to not bringing past family conflicts and dramas into the equation.

What were your loved one’s wishes for the end of their life? What makes the most sense, financially and logistically? How can you meet in the middle to reach an outcome that benefits everyone? These are all important questions to ask in order to make a rational decision about end-of-life care.

Document diligently

It’s important to take notes about all of the conversations you have with family members about end-of-life care. This not only makes it easier to keep track of everyone’s preferences, but can help you avoid any miscommunications later down the track. These documents can also prove useful in the unfortunate situation you ever end up in family court.

You may want to consider designating a family member to take notes of the discussions (preferably someone who isn’t directly involved in the negotiations.) You may also be able to use a recording app on your phone which will automatically transcribe the conversation for your records. Just be sure to let everyone know you will be recording.  

Consider mediation

If getting everyone on the same page is proving to be an impossible feat, there’s no shame in seeking meditation. EOL conflict mediators specialise in managing the interests of various family members and delving deeper into the underlying values, beliefs and fears behind these. These professionals can often be found employed by hospitals or hired privately. Some GPs can assist with this, too. Using a mediator to help facilitate these discussions can help your family more quickly reach a peaceful resolution.

At Scalabrini, while we can’t make your end-of-life decisions for you, we can take the time to explore your advanced care wishes with you, so you can guide us in what’s best for you.