It’s not uncommon these days for families to be a blend of more than one marriage and involve stepchildren, sometimes from more than one birth mother. This can make end-of-life discussions more important before an actual illness sets in, and also it can make it more fraught with emotions and differences of opinion. This makes it important to take into account When we plan and discuss anything related to dying, death, and the aftermath it’s essential to take into account stepchildren and other relatives.
“The end of life is often a nexus where stuff that has been building for decades comes out,” says Brian Carpenter, associate professor of psychology at Washington University who studies family communication and decision making. “As we live longer and longer, relationships are becoming more complicated. Families may be ‘blended’ more than once. That kind of situation compounds the number of people that are part of the end-of-life conversation,” Carpenter adds.
Sara had watched her husband of 20 years, Liam, decline over 6 months from kidney disease. Liam’s adult children from his previous marriage did not disagree with the decision to put him in hospice and were respectful of the final months as their stepmom stayed by their father’s side each day. Sara was grateful that there was no acrimony between the family members over the decision.
The day after Liam died, as Sara was planning the funeral, and Liam’s children became vocal and insisted that their birth mother give the eulogy at his funeral. Despite years of an acrimonious relationship between Liam and his divorced wife, the children felt that since their mom and Liam had been high school sweethearts, she knew a side to him that Sara did not and so could share more meaningful memories and stories to Liam’s friends and relatives than anything Sara could say. Sara was stunned, hurt, and angry at what she considered to be an inconsiderate and inappropriate demand.
End-of-life issues, whether it’s writing a will or planning the script for a funeral, are never easy. In a blended family, these processes tend to be even more fraught, but it is doable.
“It’s never too late to talk about expectations and preferences though it’s much better to do so before people grow elderly or ill,” Carpenter warns. We all need to focus on what we (and those we love) want and what we don’t want. In blended families, more than the usual number of conversations may be needed. He has observed that families that have been “blended” a long time often find it easier to overcome differences of opinion, especially if the adult children and their stepfamilies have amicable relations.
Carpenter suggests these five steps to begin productive conversations:
- Be realistic about your family. A stepmother or stepbrother who tends to be argumentative or irritable in general won’t be any less difficult when you discuss end-of-life issues. Plan beforehand how you might deal with such a person. If others in the family share your assessment, make a pact not to walk out of the meeting no matter how irked you become. Or agree that you will ask the person or people interfering with the process to put any objections in writing. Promise to go through them carefully (and do so), and schedule another family conversation as soon as you can.
- Gather important documents. All family members, even people who are perfectly healthy, should have a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care and for finances. If there is no designated health care power of attorney (POA), state laws for surrogate decision-making focus on biological relations, and by default step-family are further down the line or even excluded. Even if there is POA, many funeral homes often depend on the next-of-kin hierarchy.
- Be clear about your desires. Do you want your body to be cremated after you die or do you want to be buried? Make sure your blended-family members know. If you choose to be cremated, be certain that you clarify in print what you want to be done with your ashes.
Another thing to consider in end-of-life planning is what type of service you would like to have. Whether it’s a funeral or a memorial service, listing people you might want to speak at the service will stop any potential take-over by disagreeing step-relatives.
- Revisit the conversation. End of life decisions are not set in stone. Preferences can change as we get older. If you made end-of-life decisions when you were a healthy 50-year-old, you may have different ideas and feelings as a terminally-ill 80-year-old. The conversation and decisions should be about what you are comfortable with for yourself and not what anyone else expects of you.
- Look beyond the death. Carpenter stresses that end-of-life issues don’t end with the funeral. “Something important to consider beforehand is what kind of relationships you want to have with your blended family members after the person who was the glue that stuck you together dies,” he says.
For example, do you still want to have a relationship with your stepfather, especially if your mother married him later in her life and you hardly knew him? When the blending has happened when family members are all older, people often don’t want to continue relationships, Carpenter observes. It’s perfectly normal, and don’t judge yourself if contact eventually diminishes to a yearly holiday card.
Bringing everyone together in a family discussion about end of life care can be difficult to wrangle in any family, not just in blended ones. So the question remains how can we even start a conversation about this? Carpenter suggests that you jump on any opportunity, such as the illness of a neighbor, the death of a family friend or an event in the news. If families cannot agree, consider a mutually acceptable third-party mediator to help you resolve issues.
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