Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death

Our family debates a lot of things over our dinner table – the best Looney Toon character, politics, whether or not (and where or when) something is appropriate…  For many of these topics, there are no right answers and no wrong answers – just a whole lot of discussion and opinions.

A few months ago, on the heels of the Health 2.0 conference, a small group of us gathered in a San Francisco kitchen for one of the most powerful experiences most of us had ever had around a dinner table.

The idea behind this inaugural “death dinner” was that it would be a forum to talk about death — how we’d want to go, how we want to be remembered, how we’d coped with the “good” or “bad” deaths among our friends and family. Through laughter and tears, from one thoughtful course to the next, we openly discussed death in ways many of us had never really thought about.  And that’s exactly the point. While it may seem uncomfortable–or even taboo–people are ready for this conversation.

Designed for both intimacy and accessibility, the Let’s Have Dinner and Talk about Death project takes the concept of the death dinner to the next level by not just leveraging the physical dinner table as its centerpiece, but by giving folks a chance to engage online.

Born from the collaborative minds of Michael Hebb (‘Hebb’) and Scott Macklin (inaugural Teaching Fellow and Associate Director, respectively, at the University of Washington Master of Communication in Digital Media program), and now a division of Engage With Grace, this project is the latest in Hebb’s and Macklin’s ongoing effort to “rethink the role the internet plays in embodied human experience.”  Pretty cool, yes?

This April 18th (coincidentally falling during the week of National Healthcare Decisions Day), Hebb will offer a sneak peek of the Death Dinner at TEDMED.

Conversations like this hold the power to reverse some distressing trends in our country today — trends that can feel even more distressing when they become reality for you and your family. 70 percent of Americans say they would prefer to die at home yet only 30 percent of Americans actually do. And let’s not forget that more than 25% of Medicare dollars are spent on the last year of patients’ lives – a year that can also wipe out a family’s savings on services it appears most of us wouldn’t even want.

The more we talk about end-of-life in casual settings, the more comfortable we’ll all get expressing our preferences… and the more prepared we’ll all be to understand and honor each others’ wishes when the time actually does come.  That evolution alone can start to make a dent on the bad stuff that happens when patients’ values aren’t heard and the system (that genuinely just doesn’t know any better) takes over.

Anyone who has joined us in the annual Engage With Grace Thanksgiving blog rally understands the power of the communal table to generate lively, thoughtful conversations.   And every year we hear from folks who are surprised to hear their loved ones’ end of life preferences…and those who surprise themselves by how much they’re able to open up on the topic.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of having the right conversation starter, like The One Slide, or a personal story that really resonates.  But most of all, people find that when it’s a conversation they don’t have to have, it can actually be a conversation they enjoy having.  And think of it this way – in a world increasingly fascinated with sharing every little detail of our respective lives – this could just be one of the last unexplored territories – imagine the intrigue!

In the spirit of continuing our mission to have everyone in this country understand, communicate, and have honored their end of life wishes, Engage With Grace is proud to support Let’s Have Dinner and Talk about Death. We raise our glass to Hebb and team for what they’ve accomplished already, and in anticipation of the impact we can all have together.

As we as individuals lose our squeamishness about having these conversations, the healthcare system – with its increasingly consumer-driven model – will follow.

And that’s good for everyone at the table.

Alexandra Drane is the Chief Visionary Officer of Eliza.

9 replies »

  1. Outstanding discussions and Leslie you are so right that it is just as important to discuss at the end of life as it is at the beginning of life. I learned about this movement over two years ago, as this type of dinner party concept is used in Europe as well as other locations across the US. Laurel Lewis out of Santa Monica has been having Death and Dying Dinner Parties for several years along with Tea Parties. Depak Chopra took an interest and attended one which resulted in his videotaping one of these sessions. For those who want to get a sense of how it goes you can view it on YouTube at http://youtu.be/N2SOlsDTXK8.

  2. This is great. I, like many, have had some of the most sorrowful and healing experiences of my life surrounding death. The more I have addressed death, put myself in the presence of it, recognized my mortality, the more I have begun to live. I wouldn’t say I’ve achieved complete fearlessness yet but I’m close and this brings me greater health and freedom. Death and end of life care can be beautiful transitions. End of life care is just as important as prenatal and new born care.

  3. Death, now that is one serious topic that you tackled while having dinner. But if I do die one day, I’d like to be remembered as a thoughtful daughter who never goes back on her responsibilities. 🙂

  4. More resources will be added as the project gets off the ground,so stay tuned! Meanwhile, we’ve been using some good conversation starters like the One Slide that’s on http://www.engagewithgrace.com. If you go to that site and shoot them an email they can hook you up with other ideas for getting these conversations started.

  5. Death is not an option but we treat it that way. By signing advance directives and DNR orders, we don’t prepare for death. I learned this in a most difficult way. We had the (superficial) discussions. All was in order. Yet, this preparation wasn’t sufficient to confront the realities, avoid the anguish, unnecessary pain and expense. I think this Death Dinner is a fantastic way to frame the event, prepare for the discussion, engage participants, and open up the intriguing, unexplored territories that are essential to discuss if we are to create – in this inevitable final phase – what we arduously aspire to achieve throughout our lives. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Wow. I really like this idea. How can I go about organizing something like this? I mean, obviously I suppose I could get friends and co-workers etc, but is there a website for some tips and ideas?

  7. I cannot even imagine how I would react during this dinner. The stories and emotions must be so powerful and touching. It’s a topic that is often avoided but I like how they make it so easy to share.

  8. This IS the singular issue around which the profession of US Medicine and, for that matter, our still very young nation can mature? But when?

    Every US citizen DESERVES as pain free and as dignified a death as US Bio-Medicine can possibly to offer.

    Dr. Rick Lippin
    Southampton, PA