Be prepared to talk about end-of-life wishes

By Kirk RuehlJune 3, 2013 

I recently facilitated a gathering of retirees where a man shared his frustration about being "conversation ready" while his four children were not.

One of my co-facilitators had the opposite problem: she wanted to ask her 70-year-old father about the results of his doctor's visit and he changed the subject immediately. "You don't want to hear that crap," he said.

Truth is, she did.

Life is a journey. We are all comfortable with talking about how it begins. What's difficult for most of us is to envision how it might end.

How do we face it? Who do we want around us? What do we want done? Have we shared these thoughts with the people who matter most? In a phrase, are we "conversation ready?"

"The conversation" is about ensuring that our values and wishes are honored as we or our loved ones inevitably become more frail.

When I first had one, it didn't go very well. My mom was in her home alone - pills were being lost, bills weren't being paid and food was rotting in her refrigerator. Stumbling through that experience made me wonder if this conversation needed to be so hard and whether my faith might help.

I asked myself then as I do now, was Jesus "conversation ready?" It seems to me that he was, but that those around him were not.

Jesus seemed to know it would all be OK, but those around him remained fearful of the end, how it would happen and what it might mean. Jesus wanted to talk about it, but they would have none of it.

As with his early followers, so with us: the end of life is a place for engaging our faith at the points of fear and intimacy. When I reflect on Jesus' words, it seems to me that "be not afraid" is an invitation to replace fear with courage and trust. It also seems that "come to me ... and I will give you rest" is an invitation to intimacy.

Most people I sit with aren't so concerned about where they are going - heaven or hell - but about what and who they are leaving. They are concerned about their legacy and relationships.

What if engaging our faith on this subject allowed us to talk more openly within our families and our communities? What if people of faith could take the lead and make this conversation less taboo?

I will admit that this type of sharing is a challenge for everyone and that education and practice are needed. It's important to remember, also, is that this conversation takes time and cannot be rushed. But to be sure, it needs to happen well in advance of a crisis. And in my experience, its absence replaces journey with protocol, letting go with rupture and potential transformation with a train wreck.

Life is a journey. There are countless opportunities for happiness and suffering.

We each need to trust in one who is truly for us, entirely with us and genuinely supportive of our growing capacity to be fully human.

Jesus did this. I think he was "conversation ready."

-- Kirk Ruehl is a chaplain, educator and founder of Conversation Academy. He lives in Kennewick and attends Lord of Life Lutheran Church. Questions and comments should be directed to editor Lucy Luginbill in care of the Tri-City Herald newsrooom, 333 W. Canal Drive, Kennewick, WA 99336. Or email

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