End-Of-Life Conversation Can Mean Peace of Mind For Your Family

WABC's Anchor Bill Ritter:

I need your help and your input.

I'm working on a project for ABC News that I've been dreaming about doing for more than a decade. It's about what has been, perhaps, the most taboo of topics. But now it's time to bring it out of the closet, and into the open.

We're calling it "The Conversation" and right now it's in the beginning stages. We want to help people open up to the ones they love, without judgment, about the kind of goodbye they want. The kind they could have. This isn't a religious or political process. And it's not all about death. It's about life.

This is not an easy conversation, but it's not as difficult as most people think it is. And the people who will be having it will have help from us and the Conversation Project, our partner organization. We've come up with a checklist of helpful and suggested questions to jump-start what may be the most important conversation your family's ever had.

By the time it's over, hopefully, everyone gathered around the kitchen table or living room will have had a say, and then quickly realized this isn't the last of all this. It's just the beginning. The payoff is huge: Studies show families that go through this process of "The Conversation" come out healthier. The rates of depression in those first six months after the death of a loved one plummet among these families.

"You die only once - don't mess it up."

It's not a trite mantra. It's a growing sentiment among many Americans who don't want their last days to be their worst. Not that anyone wants to die. But how we die has become increasingly unacceptable to a growing number of people. The hard numbers: 70 percent of us say we want to die at home, but 70 percent of us end up dying in a hospital or nursing home. The numbers are flip-flopped. And it's not by accident. We prepare our finances for death; we're ready with insurance policies and all sorts of estate planning. But we're not, as a whole, prepared for the emotional part of death. What we need is estate planning for the soul.

From a personal perspective, I've buried my mother and father - and had remarkably honest conservations with both of them before they died. I think that helped them, and me, get through what is, at best, a raw, emotional and devastating part of life. And having gone through this with them, I realize that there are things I could have done differently, things I wish we had discussed earlier.

My mom died at home of lung cancer. She was just 61. Three months after her diagnosis, she was dead. My dad was 81 when he died, and his slow decline from Parkinson's and dementia - he had a form of Alzheimer's - sped up when he broke his hip. He ended up in a nursing home - not what he wanted, but it's where he ended up.

My experience was that both of their deaths were incredible and loving and reflected the intimacy and respect I had for both of them.

My father's death was especially personal, because after he died, I bathed him and dressed him in a suit and tie. I didn't know I was going to do it - I swaddled him as he had once swaddled me, neither of us knowing it - but looking back I so wish we had talked about this old Jewish ritual that I personalized for my family. I would have loved for him to know that I would bathe him and dress him and take care of him after he died.

I think that this new effort we're launching will go a long way to help others know what to do, beforehand.

So, would you participate? Would you have "The Conversation" with your family? Your parents, your children, your spouse or significant other? Would you videotape it? Would you share your experiences with others, on the WABC website and ABC News' website? We need the bold beginners to show the rest of the country the power of a loving family and an honest discussion.

We're starting "The Conversation - For the Rest of Your Life," the double entendre intentional. Thanks.