It is not uncommon for family members to be thrown into emotional turmoil when facing end of life decisions for a loved one.  This is especially true when the loved one experiences a traumatic injury or an unexpected medical event.  Family members tend to come to terms with the reality of the circumstances in different ways and each may do so on a different timeline.  We may rationally understand what has happened to our loved one but coming to terms with the emotional impact of an unexpected medical event takes time.  

This is never easy, but having some idea of a loved one’s wishes before being thrown into a circumstance where you need to make decisions on their behalf — often in consultation with other family members — makes a big difference.  If you have been through this before, you recognize that family members can have different ideas about what is best for their loved one, or what their loved one would want in a particular circumstance.  

Conversations about the risks and benefits of treatment at times may feel as though we are in a “grey area.”  Is the action we are taking really helping our loved one?  Will they get better, or are we simply extending the dying process?  The emotional impact of such decisions can be profound but having some idea of “what Mom or Dad would want” in a given circumstance, or what quality of life means for them, can make all the difference in the world.   

As hard as it is to come to terms with the fact that a loved-one may be dying, the journey is only made more difficult when family members have no idea what a loved one would want.  If their loved one did not take the time to complete a Healthcare Directive, if they didn’t make the effort to have conversations with family members about what decisions they would make if on life-support with little chance for recovery, the burden on family members left to make decisions is greatly multiplied.  

As a member of the Ethics Committee at St. Cloud Hospital, and the supervisor of the hospital chaplains we are present to many families at the death of a loved one.  It becomes clear in a rather short time which families “have done their work” in preparing for the death of a loved one, and which ones are completely unprepared to confront the reality which is before them.  

Unexpected tragic injury and death will jolt anyone, but most often we are faced with expected challenges or the slow deterioration of an older adult, and we have time to prepare.  Completing a healthcare directive ahead of time, and spending time discussing a loved one’s wishes about end of life decision-making has a profound impact on the level of burden placed on the family members left to make end of life decisions.   

Coming to terms with the death of a loved one is always hard, but having some idea of what a loved one would want at the end of life can lessen the emotional burden placed on family members left to make those decisions.  As I mentioned earlier, it becomes clear to hospital chaplains which families have had those conversations, and which ones have not.  Please do your family a favor and start the conversation.  If you are comfortable with end of life conversations, your family can be too.  In the end, you’ll be happy you did.