Every year about this time, families all over the world get together to share the holidays. For many, it is a great time for memories and catching up, reconnecting with family members seeing the grandchildren as they grow, welcoming new people into the family and so on.

Unfortunately there are thousands of other families who do not share the joy because there has been a rift, arguments and unforgivable things said about sensitive family matters. I am not referring to the common emotional memories or sibling rivalry or other intergenerational grudges. But because too many of us are reluctant to have “the conversation” with our elderly family members, siblings and adult children of a person who is on life support or in a coma or has recently died, are confronted with unpleasant decisions, just at the time they are feeling emotionally upset. Instead of banding together, too many family members end up fighting, choosing sides or threatening war or expensive legal action. Fortunately these conflicts can be avoided if you have’ the conversation.’

One sibling may claim: “Dad wouldn’t want extraordinary things done to prolong his life;” while another may say “he told me we should do everything possible to keep him comfortable.” You get the picture…your parent or older relative never got around to telling you what he or she wanted in terms of a health care directive, burial, memorial service or even distribution of possessions, and the living family members disagree and end up with several no longer on speaking terms. Family members may argue where Uncle John should live after he leaves the hospital, who should have power of attorney and who determines if he is competent to make his own decisions. Relatives who live in a different city may feel the local family members are claiming rights by location and object to plans just because they haven’t been around all the time.

This is not a case of “Mom wanted me to have the silver,” (though that can tear families apart as well.) The necessary conversation I am referring to is the one where your parents or grandparents tell members of the family what THEY want in terms of health care and funeral plans. This conversation does not have to be gloomy, but wishes concerning their care should be made clear. You may be surprised that your usually quiet and unassuming grandmother would like a “celebration of life” instead of a wake, that she wants music and laughter and even a slide show of her life. And what a relief that she is still alert enough to make her desires known. This is so much easier than having family members guess about decisions that so easily could have been settled at the holiday table.

Starting the conversation can be easier than you think. Begin by asking what kind of care she or he wants if they become seriously ill. This way, the person understands your concern is for her comfort and not about who is going to inherit what. The topic of ‘end of life’ care is difficult for all, but if the family member feels he has some control over treatment, the rest of the family should fall into line and support him.

Once you get past that part of the conversation, there are still details one needs to address. Someone in the family needs to know where important papers are kept, whether it is an adult child, a sibling, or a favorite nephew. They don’t need to see the documents now, but they should know where to find the names of the family lawyer and accountant, insurance broker and doctors. Even the vehicle registration form and deeds and stock certificates will need to listed, along with the location of the safety deposit box and the key.

Often, relatives don’t know if a recently deceased person has already prepaid funeral expenses, or that certain bills and donations may be paid automatically each month through a checking account. (A friend told me his brother’s health club membership continued to be paid for months after his death because no one had looked at the auto pay function of his bank accounts.)

So sometime over the holidays, when everyone is feeling happy and optimistic, sit down with your older family members and talk about these issues. You don’t have to see the documents now; you just have to know the location. You can send the children into another room, but don’t let squeamish family members delay the talk just because it makes them feel uncomfortable.

We all want to feel we have some control over our lives, and this extends to the end of life as well. If you are the elder, bring it up yourself; if you are the eldest child, start the conversation in front of the rest of the family so everyone knows what your parent or grandparent wants. And when all of you get together next year, the subject need not even come up.

Happy holidays!