All cancer patients know that there’s nothing like the words, “You’ve got cancer,” to make you think about death. It certain did me. When I was going through active treatment, I made my general wishes known: die at home, no life support if hope is gone, a minimum of wailing, a big memorial party, cremation, move on with your lives.
As I write this, I’m five years post-diagnosis and officially in “survivorship” care – I now go in for follow-up only once a year. And I have to admit, with cancer further and further in the rearview mirror, it’s easy to get back into denial mode when it comes to death – “I’m going to live forever!”
But we need to acknowledge death, talk about it, whether we’re a terminal patient, a just-diagnosed Stage I patient, or someone entering “survivorship.”
Recently, there have been the beginnings of a movement to help us all get real and have “the talk” about death.
• “Death Over Dinner” is a non-profit website that offers guidance and resources for planning a gathering of friends and family to talk about death. Through a questionnaire—who you’d want to invite, exactly what you’d want to discuss, what you’d like people read/watch/listen to before attending—you can figure out what’s best for your group. The site will send an invitation out for you, provide conversation prompts and tips on moderating such a dinner.
• The Conversation Project focuses less on dinner gatherings and more on promoting personal conversations and community organizing, whatever the venue. They provide a starter kit in several languages to help people start the process of talking about death. The project also provides resources for those who’d like to start a community effort, including suggestions for organizing, how to host conversation events, how to measure what sort of impacts those events have. They also sponsor a monthly “Community Call” to talk about these issues.
Together, both groups are organizing a week-long National Dinner Party to Dine and Discuss Death April 16 through 22.
Many surveys show that as many as three-quarters of Americans want to die at home. Yet that same number, three-quarters of us, actually are likely to die in a hospital or nursing home. So let’s get talking. Even if it’s scary and awkward, having this talk will greatly increase the chances that your end-of-life wishes are honored.