GoWish Cards: End-of-Life Planning Made Easier for the Family

It has become a Thanksgiving holiday tradition for my family to converge on my home in Atlanta from parts far and near. While my husband and I live with my mother nearby, my siblings are quite a distance away in Maryland and California. Much of this treasured family time is spent on conversation devoted to catching up on life events, travel, children, work, illnesses, and accomplishments. We spend as much time laughing as we do in serious dialogue. We also do our traditional hike, concert, movie outing, and football watching.

Dr. Adrienne Mims shares how her family held an important discussion

Since my mother turned 80 years old this year, she and I decided that we should use this family gathering to learn what each of us feels is most important at the end of our life. As a geriatrician, I have had extensive experience discussing end-of-life wishes with patients and families. I have seen first-hand how advance discussions can make a situation less stressful for everyone.

I vividly recall how my sister and I sat with our father and discussed his wishes for the end of his life; he chose to donate his body to science. Two years later, almost to the day, he died. As usual, family members showed up with different views on what should be the final arrangements. But because my father had signed a document outlining his wishes, the dissenting opinions were diffused. It was understood that no matter what each of us wanted, we were to uphold his stated wishes. Later, at a remembrance celebration held in the dining hall of the senior residence where he lived, all of his family and friends were in attendance. Each had the opportunity to share their memories, and we all grew from knowing him from others’ points of view.

My mother is very clear on her wishes for the end of her life. She and I have discussed them in detail. I felt that it was important for her to share her wishes with my brother and sister so that they would have the opportunity to hear her explain her decisions. To facilitate the discussion, all ten of us gathered around the dining room table, each with our own deck of “GoWish” cards. Quietly, we each put the cards into three piles based on our own preferences.

First, we each took turns saying out loud which items were in our pile of “not important to me” when I die. It was interesting to see similarities. Then, we shared our middle pile of “no real preference”. Lastly, we began on the final pile. Mom was the first to share her “most important” wishes for the end of her life. Questions were raised and answered in a calm and supportive atmosphere. I watched how my sister and brother came to accept my mother’s preferences. The rest of us also shared our last pile of wishes and felt truly heard. We promised to honor each other’s wishes and decided on health care advocates.

While I have greatly appreciated every year of our traditional gathering, this time stands out as the one that will set the course for our relationships after our matriarch is no longer with us.

Give your family the peace of knowing what you want. Everyone will be grateful for the opportunity to be heard and gain the assurance that their desires will be honored.

Empowerline has advance directives resources available for free. Consider creating space for these important conversations with your family this holiday season.

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Adrienne Mims

Dr. Mims, a family medicine physician and geriatrician, is the Chief Medical Officer and Vice President at Alliant Health Solutions. She is active in Community Outreach and education at senior centers, churches, and community meetings.