Talking About Death at the Dinner Table

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Talking About DeathNoerena Abookire, Ph.D.
Dr. Abookire is the Director of Development and Volunteer Services
for Hospice Partners of Southern California in Santa Monica CA.

Twelve strangers scramble to secure a seat at the dinner table and talk about death. It seems to me that would be the last place I would choose to be on a Saturday night in Santa Monica. However, names continue to be added to what is becoming a long waiting list to attend one of the “Death and Dying Dinner Parties” happening at Hospice Partners of Southern California’s administrative office.

No one seems concerned that they will be spending the evening with people they have likely never met, and will be talking about a subject hardly spoken of. They will be eating on fine china and will, like the other guests, contribute to the meal by bringing a dish made specifically for this evening. Many bring food that carries with it a particular memory; the mayonnaise-free potato salad that their mom always made at holidays; or the appetizer or main course that was part of every family dinner. Everything that night will have meaning; the table will be filled with unpredictable conversations offering unique opinions and theories about this often unspoken theme.

Laurel Lewis, a registered nurse specializing in end-of-life care and a graduate of the Masters Program of Spiritual Psychology at the University of Santa Monica came up with the design of the Death and Dying Dinner Parties in order to address a common challenge that she witnessed through her many years of working with families and patients dealing with end-of-life challenges. Most people are uncomfortable talking about death even when it is facing them head on. She wanted to begin to change that through a radical design so she invited people to join her over dinner where they could begin the conversation before it was critical. Choosing to talk about death over dinner today becomes preparation for later conversations that will be mandatory due to inevitable circumstances. I was happy to gain a seat at the table.

Laurel is the perfect conduit for what some think of as a difficult conversation. We were all there seeking the same thing. We asked and offered our beliefs to one another about such things as what is death really? How does it impact us? How will we deal with our own death and the death of our loved ones? These are just a few of the highly charged questions thrown into the mix between the soup and the salad.

The conversations start and end without any direction from Laurel. She is the facilitator and does not lead any conversation. Guests continue to eat as they pose rhetorical and theoretical questions like why are we so afraid of death if it is part of life. Beliefs surface: is there life after death? Tales are told of visitations from those who have passed, while others share that there is actually nothing beyond this life – when it’s over it is over. Wishes and hopes about how death will arrive at the doorstep are shared. The end of life in all its incantations can offer the ultimate confusion so we continue: what happens to us as we approach death? What is it like to experience death? Is it a journey we take with or without a road map as we travel somewhere outside of our body – or is it indeed nothing but a dead end of what we know?

Dessert, tea, coffee and a deeper connection to that which is for most the grand mystery present us with a comfortable fullness. There has been no offering of the best idea or the right approach. There is no agenda other than to be in the conversation.

Those of us who work in end-of-life care understand that very few people consider death an appropriate topic of conversation ever. Before I attended one of Laurel’s dinner parties I would have expected that under the florescent lights of a fast food restaurant or in the comfort that comes from sitting around a kitchen table, or even in an elegant dinning room a conversation about death and all it’s implications would get stuck somewhere between our throats and our mouths.

Why would anyone want to spend several hours trying to eat a meal while listening to complete strangers share their feelings, fears, experiences, hopes and expectations about death, theirs and others? How could it possibly be enjoyable or exhilarating?

It is clear that attention has been paid to every detail. Expectations are discussed; anonymity is agreed upon. There will be no speaking over one another and no one is to give advice unless asked. This respect for others encourages people to speak freely from deep places of optimism, hopelessness, sadness and joy.

It is now no mystery to me that there is a waiting list for a seat at the table. The evening combines compassionate thought with shared experiences. The conversation focused on that which is usually unspeakable and off limits. We were all surprised by the depth and authenticity of the conversation. What a delight, no small talk over dinner.

There is something wonderful about spending time with people who are comfortable talking about such a life-affirming topic as death. Along with my fellow diners I had listened, laughed, and taken some mighty deep breaths behind some heartfelt sighs as I felt my eyes filling with tears of compassion and gratitude for the way my husband and I approached his terminal diagnosis and death. We had experienced what many would call a “good death” with hospice workers by our side guiding us to find the best possible choices that were available to us in a situation where others would have not seen any hope. Guests took home their empty serving dishes with their heads filled with new questions and answers. As the night came to an end and the goodbyes began, we were aware of new perspectives on old opinions.

I left the dinner knowing that the strangers I had spent the last three hours with were strangers no more.

Death and Dying Dinner Parties are sponsored by Hospice Partners of Southern California and take place in our administrative offices in Santa Monica CA.

For more information visit www.hospicepartnerssc.org or contact Laurel Lewis, RN at 310-264-8413.

You can also sign up to be a friend by checking out Death and Dying Dinner Parties on Facebook.

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