Death Dinners: Why Dying Is a Supper Topic Du Jour

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death dinnerOn a warm evening in late August, Betsy Trapasso, a 51-year-old former hospice social worker, gathered seven friends at a seafood restaurant in Topanga, Calif., for an unlikely purpose. She wanted to talk about death.

Over the course of the three-hour meal, with the Santa Monica Mountains as a backdrop, the friends discussed losing loved ones, the reasons why people find it so difficult to discuss death and dying, and how they wanted their own lives to end.

One dinner guest had recently become the caregiver for an elderly neighbor. When that neighbor had to be admitted to the hospital, Trapasso’s friend didn’t know if the person had made any decisions about whether to be kept on life support, which prompted much soul-searching. “My friend began thinking about what he wanted when his own time came,” Trapasso recalls.

Trapasso and her friends aren’t alone when it comes to discussing end-of-life issues in the open—more and more people across the country are asking each other similar questions. How much medical intervention do I want to keep me alive? Can I afford long-term medical care? Have I made sure that my family won’t be financially burdened by my death? The fact that Americans are living longer than ever before, not to mention that many lack the savings to sustain a long retirement—let alone pricey long-term care—makes it more important than ever to pose these questions.

And, for many people these days, one effective way to share their very personal end-of-life decisions and desires with friends and family is to host “death dinners.” The hope is that gathering over a meal will make discussing the topic of dying a little more palatable, while also sparing loved ones from fighting over financial and medical issues down the road.

“Financial issues at end of life cause so many problems and concerns for people,” says Trapasso, who now works as an end-of-life guide. “I have seen people struggle with whether to leave money for their kids or do medical treatments. I’ve had men ask me if it was cheaper for them to just die, so their wives wouldn’t lose the house. It astonished me.”

RELATED: How My Disease is Bankrupting My Family

  • Angela

    Fantastic that you raised this — I tell my clients to take the time during the holidays to have this tough discussion!

  • tla

    This is such an important issue to ne disscussed. I am a nurse and we get so many elderly people that still are full codes and dying. It is so frustrating for families to have to deal with the issues of DNR at the bedside.

  • mara

    First time I hear about this death dinners and I can see how useful (and difficult) these can be. I recently had a close friend go through the process of deciding what to do after a sudden death in the family…it was wake up call about how significant is to make things a bit easier for people…I was waiting to have kids to take this more seriously but this is making me think that now is the time

  • paganheart

    Our society is in such denial about the realities of death and so unwilling or unable to talk about it. We’re more screwed up about death than we are about sex, and that’s saying something given how dysfunctional our attitudes about sexuality are!

    I am experiencing this myself right now; my father-in-law has end-stage pulmonary disease, is likely to die within months (if not weeks), and had never bothered to make a will or an end-of-life plan. Now he is scrambling to do so, while he is still reasonably lucid and able to make decisions. It would have been so much easier on him (not to mention much easier on everyone else in the family…major, major drama) if he had made his wishes known when he was still healthy and vibrant and not so stressed and anxious; studies have shown that people make much poorer decisions when they are under stress and pressure. I fear that is happening in my husband’s family right now.

    Meanwhile my own parents, elderly and not in the best of health themselves, also do not have wills or advance directives. My mother is at least willing to consider the idea, she knows it is important, but my father flatly refuses to even entertain the discussion. It’s almost as if he fears just the idea of talking about death will hasten his own death. He has even accused me of wanting him to “hurry up and die” because I want him to make a will! Honestly if he passed away tomorrow, we’d be up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

    One good thing that has come out of this, is that my husband and I have decided that our gift to each other this year for the holidays, is to spend the money to sit down with a lawyer and make our own wills, advanced directives and powers of attorney. We are also going to write down what our final wishes will be after our deaths, and how we want to be remembered. (I know for example that I want any and all parts of my body that are still useful to be donated, and I want my remains cremated and scattered in a place that has deep meaning for me. Also, I do not want a traditional funeral; I despise funerals.) This is especially important for us because we do not have children, and will have to depend on other relatives and/or good friends to carry out our wishes. Hopefully (knock wood) we will not have to use these anytime soon, but we can spare our loved ones at least some of the agony we are living through now.

    Face it people: no one lives forever. We are all going to die. Accept it. Deal with it as best you can, in advance. Then live your existence on this poor little rock hurtling through space as best you can.

  • Alba

    I think it’s very important to discuss and pre-plan, most people think of death as a taboo, but if done in advance it can save a lot of grief for the loved ones left behind. Because we had a terrible experience with a death of a relative (funeral was a nightmare) we created myowneulogy.com and have learned a lot about how people view death and dying, we should all consider having this dinners with loved ones and leaving a message for posterity.

  • Judith Auslander

    As a Sage-ing Leader (through Sage-ing International) and a Life Coach (Wise Heart Coaching) helping Boomers deal with such topics, I am really impressed with this article. Why? Because talking about death at Death Dinners or Death Cafes is taking the fear out of death. Death is part of life and fearing death makes living every day fearful – What if today is the last day? What if it is? Would you live your life differently? If yes, than live that way. I believe that taking death out of the closet and into the light lightens our load.