On a sunny Saturday morning, I find myself staring at the boiling kettle with a sense of trepidation. Making myself a cup of coffee, I wonder if this is the smartest thing, considering my already elevated heart rate. As I settle into my chair and turn on my computer, I take a sip of coffee, the liquid meeting the anxiety in my stomach with a splash. It’s 10:15am, and I’m about to spend the next couple of hours talking about my death with total strangers.
This is a “Death Over Dinner Over Zoom” call, run by Calvary Health Care Bethlehem. Bringing people together from around Australia, we will be participating in an open and vulnerable conversation about how we would like to experience the end of our lives, following the concept founded by Michael Hebb and Angel Grant, and their book titled “Death Over Dinner”.
Calvary Health Care Bethlehem have had this session in the pipeline for some time. After their face-to-face plan was tossed out by coronavirus, they went back to the drawing board to figure out how to run a community session remotely.
And so, Death Over Dinner Over Zoom was born. As the moderators sat online, waiting for everyone to arrive, listening to the Zoom doorbell ring over and over again as more people joined the waiting room, Karen Bolger, Community Development Officer at Calvary Health Care Bethlehem said she began to feel exhilarated.
“Doing this with Zoom, so many people from across Australia were able to be there. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve that had it not been COVID and had we done a face-to-face event,” Karen said when we caught up for a chat a few days after the session.
“We would have had other great things happen, but I feel like we were connected across Australia. I felt like ‘wow we’re having this conversation across the country’ and that was amazing.”
When the session was open, and a sea of faces appeared across my computer screen, it was clear to me that this was going to be much bigger than I expected. As Karen began explaining how the morning was going to run, she also introduced us to our facilitators, explaining that as we were such a large group, we were going to be split into smaller groups so we could each get the most out of the experience.
I ended up in a group of six, including our facilitator, Lindy. From the moment our group was formed, Lindy was a soothing and welcoming presence in the top corner of my screen, as we strangers greeted each other, somewhat nervously.
It was explained to us that a Death Over Dinner conversation consisted of three main parts; an honouring ritual, the main discussion, and ending with an appreciation. As we began the honouring ritual, we were invited to raise a glass (or coffee mug) or light a candle for someone who has passed.
We each took turns introducing ourselves and our loved one who had died, explaining who they were to us and why they were important. Once we were finished, the group cheersed together to our loved one.
As I went second to last, I felt myself get choked up mentioning the name of my grandfather, Louis, and his sudden death on Christmas Eve when I was five. The person after me, try as they might, felt they couldn’t talk about their person, but in showing their vulnerability to the group, and knowing that they held the memory of someone in their heart and mind, as we all had, the ice had been shattered.
“That was really important to us, we wanted to give people the ability to choose how they wanted to participate, and that was really important to us the whole way through,” Karen said.
“We’re not going to drag someone into a conversation that they’re not ready for. This is about creating space and opportunity and you come as you’re ready and as you’re feeling brave enough. So the fact that someone said ‘actually I can’t do that’, I feel really good about. That we were able to create that space for someone to say no and still participate.”
As we began the discussion, having fully opened our hearts and put our vulnerability on display, Lindy ran us through a couple of questions, giving each one of us an opportunity to participate, but also allowing us the room to think, to take our time, and to pass if we wanted to.
We discussed questions like ‘who do you want to be with when you die?’, ‘would you want your body brought home if you died overseas?’ and ‘what song do you want at your funeral?’. As we each took our turns, sharing our own insights, as well as our experiences with other people in our lives who had died, there were moments of solemnity and moments of laughter. As we moved through the questions, the emotions ebbed and flowed, but were always with an undercurrent of the utmost respect for these strangers we met just 30 minutes earlier.
“Having the questions, people have an expectation of the morning, where as [in the event of] a vague ‘let’s just chat’ there’s very little expectation and you don’t get the chance for the honouring ritual. The questions form a strong foundation that people feel they can stand on and I think that’s really important,” said Lindy, as we discussed the session a few days later.
“This encourages people to leave a legacy, so by actually having this conversation with family, you’re actually telling them what’s important to you and what values you stand by and how you want to be perceived after you go and what you’ve left behind.”
“[Having this conversation] creates other options for people. So listening to [another person’s funeral wishes] that is now an option for me because I’ve become aware of it. It may not be an option that I choose, but it’s an option which I have never even thought about before. So it just increases individual options. It’s not just about religion or culture, it’s about option diversity,” she said.
Having a Death Over Dinner discussion, whether it is with strangers over Zoom, or around a dinner table with your nearest and dearest, not only helps to destigmatize talking about death, but it also is an incredible bonding experience. Entering a conversation, willing to be totally open and honest and vulnerable with others was a lesson in humanity, and one where, at the end, I felt more connected with a group of strangers than I ever have before.
“In the Zoom evaluation, the final question was how supported or connected did you feel, and every person, so 100%, said they felt connected or supported, with 64% saying they felt very supported or connected, and the remaining 36% said somewhat, which I think is phenomenal. That complete strangers, who didn’t know each other, felt connected over Zoom. That blows my mind. No one said they didn’t feel connected at all which is incredible,” said Karen.
While it would be possible to sit across from someone with a notepad and pen and take down what they said in a Death Over Dinner conversation and at the end have a death plan and funeral wishes laid out, that’s not what the conversation is about. At its core, the Death Over Dinner concept is about having open and honest conversations about your life and your death and sharing it with others. It encourages you to look your death in the face and greet it, in a way that is comfortable and non-intimidating and with vulnerability, and sharing that experience with the important people in your life.
“I think there’s a quote that says something along the lines of, ‘when you’ve looked at your own death you can start doing life even better’. So it talks about how that conversation around death makes you stop and think about the life you’re living and if you’re living the life that you want to live, acknowledging that you will die,” said Lindy.
“I think so many of us go through life thinking that it will last forever, and then when you actually have a conversation about your own death, then you realise ‘oh okay I’m not going to be here forever, gee I hope I’m doing everything I wanted to do now because I don’t know when that time will come’. And that’s the truth, nobody really knows when that time will come.”
As someone in their mid-twenties, I hope that I have many more years in me before the things I considered last Saturday morning become a reality. But having had this kind of conversation, considering my own mortality in a way I never have before, I can truly say it was one of the most incredible and transformative experiences I’ve ever had, and I couldn’t recommend it more. When I’m allowed to have people gather around my dinner table again, I’ll be sure to ask some of life’s bigger questions, and host my own Death Over Dinner.
“I think for me, the takeaway is the idea of being brave. Sometimes you do just need to move outside your comfort zone and you’ll learn something about yourself,” said Karen.
“Be it how to conduct an online session on Zoom or what matters in life or a deeper relationship with somebody. I think, encouraging people to be brave and to take those opportunities to grow, that will be a wonderful outcome.”
If you’d like more information on Michael Hebb’s Death Over Dinner concept, you can view the Australian website here, and if you’d like to get in touch with Karen and the Bethlehem team about their Death Over Dinner Over Zoom session, you can email her at Karen.Bolger@calvarycare.org.au