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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Let’s Talk About Death

Ellen Goodman created The Conversation Project after being her mother’s caretaker for 10 years.

Ellen Goodman created The Conversation Project after being her mother’s caretaker for 10 years.

Holidays are the time when families and friends gather together for food and conversation. But some of the most important topics, such as end-of-life care, are the most difficult to discuss. A recent study shows that 90 percent of Americans say it’s important to talk about end-of-life care but only 30 percent actually do.

Award-winning journalist Ellen Goodman wants to change that. She created The Conversation Project after being her mother’s caretaker for 10 years and having to make difficult decisions for her mother. The Conversation Project gives people the tools to start talking about their end-of-life wishes.

Goodman is encouraging people to pick a date during the week of Jan. 1 to 7 to host a dinner with family and friends and “start talking about how we want to live the last days of our lives, honoring each other’s wishes with dignity, respect and deep compassion.”

Interview Highlights

Have the conversation at home, before there’s a crisis

“If you’re lucky — and we want to make sure that it’s more than luck — you’ve had these conversations early, before there’s a crisis. You’re talking about running into a crisis or you’re talking about people who end up making these decisions in the ICU. This is not the place to talk about what matters to you, what your values are, to have a real conversation about the kind of care that you want and the kind of care that you don’t want. So we want to bring these talks early.”

Death is inevitable…so talk about it

“It’s funny, because there is, between adult children and elderly parents, a kind of conspiracy of silence often. The adult child doesn’t even want to suggest to the parent that they might be dying or that they might ever die, I should say. And the elderly parent doesn’t want to worry the child, and so, each of us sits there, knowing. I mean, my favorite line comes from The Onion magazine – they had a wonderful headline a couple of years ago that said ‘Death Rate Holds At 100 Percent.’ We all know the deal here, and when we don’t talk about it, we end up often feeling quite lonely and isolated.”

There may be a cultural shift underway

“I think we are at a tipping point. Part of it is that the baby boom generation is getting older and we’ve been the change agents in our culture. We’re the generation that changed the way we give birth in America, so maybe we’ll be the generation that changes the way we die. I do think there is something of a cultural shift in it – that doesn’t mean that it’s an easy one. And The Conversation Project, by the way, if you miss having these conversations at Christmas, the first week in January, we are partnering with Death Over Dinner and having a series of dinners. We are encouraging, on our website, all the fun and truly interesting, not scary, conversations that you can have to start your own dinner.”


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  • Caroline

    In my family we talked about death quite often. Maybe not, often, but it was never a taboo subject nor did it feel a morbid subject. Children asked questions, and generations were around to answer honestly. Getting older was not looked upon as being a terrible state, but just routine of life progression.

    Mostly, doctors were shunned, unless you really had something that hung on for weeks. Of course as children we saw the doctor more often, but my parents were rarely sick for very long. My dad only missed work when he was stung by a bee between his eyes and swelled up like a balloon – even down into his chest. He looked scary! No. No doctor visit. It just went away.

    Death came to both parents in their 80s. If they hadn’t been smokers they might have lasted longer. Dad was at home when he passed, and Mom in a nursing home. Neither wanted any life extending measures, and they made it well known to everyone. Most everything was put in writing, even if informally, and because we’d talked all of our lives about death no disagreements, no problem arose.

  • KJ

    Such an important topic. I have free worksheets for planning for your death
    at http://www.deathforbeginners.com/worksheets.html Feel free to download for you & your family. You can also explore the site to find useful money-saving tips. Cheers!

  • Dr. Weymouth

    In the interviews I did for a recent book, a predominant theme among the individuals and the professionals was the need to talk about dying and death. Having your loved one’s wishes known, and being able to fulfill them, gave family and friends a deep sense of satisfaction and helped with the death, the funeral, and the grieving process. It may seem counterintuitive to say that talking about death makes life and relationships richer, but it does, both before and after death.

  • Laura

    My children are growing up inside a very different conversation around death and dying than I did. I was very sheltered from the topic as a child and even young adult — even in church. Events in my early adult life have encouraged me on my wonderful spiritual journey including the contemplation of life and death. I include this spiritual aspect of life and its many forms in the context of my conversations about death with everyone I talk to. No matter what religion a person practices (even if none), most people get a sense of peace when we include the spiritual aspect of dying or “crossing” as we reference it in our home. It seems to help create a space of “okayness” when making those necessary end-of-life choices.

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