Our First Death Dinner

by Catherine Braxton

As we staggered the tissue boxes across the long dining table, one of the wait staff approached, “We have a running bet as to what is going on here, can you tell us so we can determine the winner? Some of us think it is going to be a sad book club, the others, a funeral…”

Mischievously I replied “Actually, it is a mixture of the two. It is our first death dinner.” The waitress did not look disheartened that she had lost the bet, but rather intrigued, “Now you’ve got my attention” she replied.

It was a gathering of 10 professional, some who knew each other from distant engagements in the same profession over the years, others complete strangers. The brave souls who accepted our invitation had no idea in which category they were when they RSVP’d “Yes”, and yet, decided that the concept was interesting enough to put themselves out on a limb. The invitation described a lightly facilitated dinner in which we would immerse ourselves in the conversation of death and dying. Not in the morbid, macabre fashion, but rather to explore how we as a society view death, how we as professionals lead that conversation at work, how we as humans have our own stories behind our beliefs. The dinner included a small amount of prep, as everyone was instructed to listen to one of three provided podcasts that discussed death in a new and unique way. Some did their homework quite diligently, listening to all three and even taking notes (Good Job Jo!). Others found one they liked, listened and shared their impression of the talk while at the dinner.

We opened the dinner with wine (of course, how else can you gather a group of strangers and ask them to candidly discuss dying without a little alcohol) and we toasted to our ancestors. We asked each participant to tell us something about the person they were toasting to and what was inspirational about them. This lead to tears, laughter and an immediate bond as we hugged those nearest to us, providing the just the right amount of comfort. Dinner was ordered, more wine was had, and we opened up to the burning question “ So, what was your initial reaction when you received this invitation?” The responses were as varied as the choices on the menu. One attendee replied that she was immediately intrigued after opening the invite at home, exclaiming to her husband that she had been invited to a “Death Dinner”, in which he replied “that is SO morbid”. Another participant stated that she knew me, knew how crazy I was, so… that’s why she came! Others said that they came in support of our efforts to “push the envelope” because they know how important it is to get support for such grassroots efforts. Others came as friends, just interested in the topic and willing to share. One our our favorite responses was from Jackie who stated that she thought the idea was a bit crazy, not knowing how to respond. I suppose we did a very good job of continuing to encourage those invited to reply because she finally decided to attend, regardless of the long commute… and I think she ended up having a great time.
It is hard to say we had “fun” at dinner as we discussed death, but I do believe that we did. We had moments of laughter and tears, moments where everyone leaned in just a little closer to really hear what an individual was saying through the tears. It was supportive, it was seamless and it was beautiful.

As the organized nerd that I proudly boast to be, I had created a pseudo-outline for the night including probing questions, famous quotes and even controversial views on the subject to ignite conversations. It was as if everyone had read my notes before hand however, for the conversation just flowed, following a natural progression as we talked. We talked of our own struggles of death in the workplace, often facing it daily with the older adults that we care for. Struggles with a families open conflict in our offices, tense dialogue as siblings disagree on end of life care, even confusion over the “paperwork side of death” like D.N.R.’s and Living Wills compared to human side including wishes, final goodbyes and ways to be remembered. Jackie, our hesitant yet highly participating guest shared a memory of having a funeral home call her after one of her residents had died. The family was at the funeral home fighting out-right as to where the dead should be buried and how the arrangements should ensue. Jackie had done her job, and an excellent one at that, in providing that resident with an enriching life during her days on earth, even ensuring that her final wishes were documented. Yet still there was contention after her passing and a lack of sensible protocol on the side of the mortuary.

We spoke of the struggles we have with our own parents as we attempt to embark on an enlightening conversation about final wishes. MaryBeth stated “We are fighting proud parents… so we do it in silence.” She continued “parents think they are doing the right thing by NOT choosing a P.O.A. or talking about their choices to their children in hopes not to upset anyone, and in the same vein we want our families to stay intact after our passing. It is the lack of action and conversation that leads to dysfunction after the fact.” Dysfunction for sure, Disagreements, you bet, and most importantly hurt feelings and a sense of betrayal that can never be resolved now that the loved one with all the answers is gone. “Having the conversation may cause a rift, but it will also produce the best outcomes and a family can take the opportunity to work that out while they are alive and not leave a mess behind”, said MaryBeth.

We shared in our efforts of what we are doing personally and professionally to bring enrichment to those in the final stages of life, or to those who are facing the reality of death each day. One attendee, Mark, commented on his weekly breakfasts he shares with a neighbor who has recently lost his wife. He said that at first it was because he “felt sorry for him”, a sense of sympathy for the situation that pushed him into action. Yet as the weeks went by he found that the breakfasts and conversation were benefiting him as well, learning from someone who is willing to share his wisdom. Mark was building empathy for this new found friend that could teach him what loss really feels like. Mark said he takes this enhanced insight with him to work each day as he attempts to help his clients. Claudia, a long time hospice enthusiast, talked about her weekly McDonald’s sundaes that she shares with a current client. “We both look forward to it, one for me and one for her”, it is a time in the week where they both slow down and just ENJOY each others company.

Many commented on the way in which we honor the death of a resident within long term care facilities.

“They walked in through the front door when they arrived, they should be escorted out the front door at the time of death, not snuck out the back in shame among the dumpsters and employees on their smoke break”.
The conversation never became a networking event. This emphasized the fact that even a group of professionals craved this deeper, RAW material more than an opportunity to generate leads. Perhaps this was an anomaly, but I doubt it. We need to have this conversation, we need to have it in a safe place. We need to encourage our doctors to become more comfortable with the concepts and help build their confidence in creating deeper relationships with their patients. Only then will this dialogue become part of our life, a way in which we live and not a taboo subject. I believe that doctors should start the discussion of how their patients want scary news shared with them at the onset of the initial meeting, when stress is low, and patient-doctor rapport is at its best. Not only will this create a relationship where the patient feels valued, listened to and respected, but also make the physician’s job easier, not having to straddle the desire to tell the truth vs. provide false hope in critical moments when time is of the essence.

Finally we discussed next steps, ideas such as the 5 Wishes document, future death dinners and the ways in which this format could be presented to our own families. Everyone had an opinion and all were esteemed with openness and a lack of judgement. Ideas were shared, brainstorming was encouraged and everyone concluded the evening with thanks and appreciation and a desire to continue down this road of enlightenment. One guest summarized her thoughts “If we remember with joy the labor pains when bringing our loved ones into the world, why can’t it be that way at the end too?”

This sentiment was accepted with awe and appreciation, a wonderful way to wrap up an evening of eye opening, heart wrenching discussion, as we embarked on the most important conversation NO ONE is having… except a random few. We are hoping to change that.

Catherine Braxton is the Chief Education Officer at Silver Dawn. Along with her business partner, Tami Neumann, they create and curate the Dementia RAW conference, which provides C.E.U.’s to allied health professionals. The Death Dinner is just one of several original modules presented at Dementia RAW.

April 12th, 2016