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How to talk about end of life with your family

The 'Conversation Project' can help

Published: November 2014

Our new multimedia feature, “A Beautiful Death,” has already gotten a lot of attention, especially in light of the widely publicized planned suicide of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who was suffering from an incurable brain tumor. And many readers are wondering what they and their families can do to make sure their own end-of-life wishes are thought through and followed.

Along with the report and video, we have put many resources online already, which you can find here.

But there’s one more that we’ll be adding soon that you should know about. It’s called the Conversation Project and it’s exactly that: a project to guide and support you and your family as you start to talk about these difficult, at times painful and scary, subjects.

The Conversation Project was founded by Ellen Goodman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Boston Globe columnist, based on her own experiences with her mother’s final years.

“She had dementia,” Goodman recalls. “She couldn’t decide what she wanted to have for lunch, let alone making decisions about her health care. I was kind of overwhelmed; I previously had no idea I would be making those kinds of decisions.”

After her mother died, Goodman discovered that “virtually everybody I knew” had had similar experiences. That ultimately led to the founding of the Conversation Project.

The centerpiece of the project is a downloadable “conversation starter kit” that you can use to clarify your own end-of-life feelings and begin talking with your loved ones about them. It even gives suggestions for icebreakers to get the conversation going, like “I was thinking about what happened to Uncle Joe, and it made me realize…” The kit is available in English, Spanish, French, and Mandarin.

“Have these conversations early and often, around the kitchen table, with many members of the family so that there is consensus,” says Harriet Warshaw, the group’s executive director. “If you are selecting a health care decision maker, make sure that one is of like mind with what you want.”

In addition you can download a kit that will help you have the conversation with your doctor—possibly an even more challenging prospect than having it with your family, given our health care system’s single-minded focus on aggressive curative care.

—Nancy Metcalf

More end-of-life coverage

Click on the photo at right to see our full report, "A Beautiful Death." It follows the end-of-life journey of Paul Scheier, a retired dentist from Buffalo, N.Y., and his family, and contains more information on how to prepare for this final passage.  

For collected resources and information for caregivers, go to

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