'The most difficult talk I had with my dad was also the most valuable.'

My father hated going to doctors, even though he was one. He detested hospitals even though he worked in them for 50 years. He knew too much about what can happen to the elderly when they go into the medical system – a system understandably devoted to keeping people alive as long as possible.

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What kept him almost calm about going into hospital a few months ago was a piece of paper. A thin page that looked insubstantial and inconsequential, but proved hugely important.

Because that bit of paper meant doctors, nurses, his family and the system knew his wishes. And when the end, came most of my beautiful, brave dad’s wishes were finally respected.

That piece of paper came out of a difficult conversation my dad initiated. It was a difficult, tortured and awful exchange – but I’m so glad we had it.

Dad and I many years ago - sorry about the dog's well-placed bum

The paper said he didn't want to be revived if he had a heart attack or stroke. That he wanted to be able to live in a condition where he could still feed himself.  That he'd rather die at home. It was witnessed by neighbours and signed by his doctor.

It's really hard for me to talk about this.We talk daily with our parents about little things, but talking about the biggest things of all can be so hard we put it off for another day, for a 'better' time, for when we have more time. But here's the problem: the need for clarity around those big issues can come in an instant. It can also creep up slowly and capture us unaware - and unprepared.

Take it from me - someone who recently lost their dad - there are things we should talk about with our parents before it's too late. None of them are easy. Some of them are impossible, if relationships are fraught or parents have utterly failed to care for their children.  But if it's possible, just do it.

1. Talk about memories.

Even if you aren't soppy types who say 'I love you', it's great to share and compare your earliest and strongest memories. Dad and I never forgot the day he'd picked me up from gymnastics and we heard on the car radio that John Lennon had died. We both cried as we listened to Imagine. We laughed for 40 years about the time he woke me up for swimming and it was raining and I told him I wouldn't go "because my arms will get wet".

Image: iStock.

2. Talk about gratitude.

Thank them for the little things that add up to a big life - for all the driving, for sitting on sidelines, for guidance, the times they held you when it hurt and gave you a kick in the butt when you needed it. I wish I'd told my dad how much I appreciated him encouraging me to change schools. He asked - rather than told - me, suggested it gently, sweetly and strongly, and that quiet encouragement (when he must have wanted to drag me out of my high school by my ear) meant I felt trusted and empowered to make the right decision.

3. Say you're sorry.

Apologise for the hell you gave them. I've had friends who have said sorry to their parents for being shocking teenagers and 20-somethings and felt forever free of their guilt. Some were surprised when they received some "sorrys" back.

Acknowledgement and forgiveness from both sides can be a wonderful thing.

4. Talk about their life.

It's funny how you can be in your 40 and 50s and not know much about your mum and dad's lives when they know everything about you, from your first baby poo to your crushed teenage heart and beyond. When they are gone, you become aware of all the voids in their story.

We always loved hearing about how my parents met and how dad was "instantly smittten" with mum. But I wish I knew more about their childhoods and the life of their parents. Dad actually wrote a little book about his life and put together some family histories, but he died before he'd finished tracking my mother's relatives. At the time, I saw these books as his hobby; now I see them as his gift. It comforts me to imagine him as a child sitting bored by his mother as she watched for enemy planes over suburban Sydney. One day I will finish his work.

Image: iStock.

5. Talk about their death.

There's no doubt this one is tricky. Few  of us want to imagine life without our parents, let alone their last years, months and hours. But this is why we are so ill-prepared when it approaches. But it's so important to know what kind of treatment and end a parent wants.


An Advanced Care Directive can be signed by anyone over the age of 18 to be used in case they are ill and injured. This is the bit of paper my father clutched to his chest when he went to hospital.  The directive is a form you can fill out and is slightly different in each state of Australia. It can nominate you to be an advocate for your parent but is different to a power of attorney, which is another form to consider if you need to act for a parent.

Without these forms you are left to make decisisions in the dark. The directive can also reduce conflict in the family because when brothers and sisters disagree, it can get very messy.

6. Talk about their funeral.

I'm not sure there is such a thing as a "good death". But there's definitely such a thing as a good funeral. I have been to some wonderful funerals, where the tears flow and love and life are honoured, but I've also encountered standard, impersonal funerals, and they can add fury to grief.

If you know what your mum or dad wants, you can give them the send off they deserve in a way that celebrates their life and honours their wishes. One of the best funerals I've ever been to was directed word-by-word by the man who had died.  It was comforting to know how much he would have loved it, and I could almost hear him humming along to the music he'd selected.

Image: iStock.

If you can, talk about burial or cremation, about where they would like their ashes scattered or what they would like on their headstone.

Because when the end comes and your mind is numb from the grief and the loss, knowing their wishes offers the slightest light in the dark, a quietness in the noise and some peace among the utter confusion and chaos.

I will initiate these conversations with my kids as they get older and I will be forever thankful to my father for having the courage to talk about the difficult things with me.

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