Friday, April 19, 2024

Appreciating Life Deepens Through Candid Conversation About Death, Says Activist Author

Michael Hebb is the epitome of a disruptor. The Seattle-based author, activist, artist and author has set out to challenge how we think about some of life’s most sensitive issues, like death and dying. His desire is to start “a gentle revolution” around the subject.

When he was in his mid-30s, Hebb took a train from Portland to Seattle and struck up a conversation with two doctors. They revealed that 75 percent of Americans wanted to die at home, yet only 25 percent did. Clearly, there is a disconnect and wishes about how someone’s final days should look like aren’t heard because they are not being discussed.

In response, he later established a non-profit organization called Death Over Dinner to encourage people to gather around the dinner table to share their thoughts about dying and how they’d like to exit this life with loved ones. The idea struck a chord and today there are Death Over Dinner events worldwide, including Canada.

His new book, Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner: An Invitation And Guide to Life’s Most Important Conversation, is “all about having the conversation anywhere at anytime you feel is appropriate, not just at the table.

“It is a trail guide in and through this difficult terrain,” says Hebb. “So many people have identified how important this conversation is, the book meets people there and aims to take them through the labyrinth with humour and tenderness.”

Those interested in starting the discussion can take a look at Death Over Dinner’s web platform, which has a tool kit for people who want to talk to friends, loved ones, colleagues, and even strangers over a shared meal. “It is also a guide and provides a script for the evening, think of it as a really profound board game.” he explains.

Hebb is currently in the midst of a book tour, which includes a stop in Toronto on December 4 when he will host a Death Over Dinner at the International Death Symposium. (Check out his Ted Talks video here.) In the meantime, YouAreUNLTD caught up with Hebb to ask him some of our burning questions about his quest to shake up our views about dying.

YAU: As North Americans, we sure have a lot of hangups around death. Why is it so difficult for us to talk about?

Hebb: Well, even though I love to give my fellow Americans a hard time, I can say from experience that avoidance of this topic is global. Certainly, we have dramatically medicalized death and removed families and friends from the process. We used to have to engage with and encounter the bodies of loved ones with a much greater frequency. I believe the out-of-site/out-of-mind current state of dying has effectively made this topic less present and more of a taboo. We lose so much when we lose our connection to our mortality.

Photo: Chase Jarvis.

I have tremendous compassion for people who have difficulty talking or even thinking about their impermanence. There are basic cognitive biases programmed into our brains to help us avoid these discussions. The work of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman sheds light on these hidden neurological systems that keep us a safe distance from the cliff. One basic bias is called the exception bias. We are programmed to think that we are all the exception to life’s basic rules, and thank God we have that or we would never throw ourselves into romantic love.

The thing to consider here is that we are all having an ongoing conversation about death, our own death, the death of our loved ones. The problem is that this conversation primarily happens in our own minds. This book and our movement Death Over Dinner are designed to create graceful and comfortable opportunities to include our community in this internal conversation.

YAU: When you started Death Over Dinner, you wanted to start a “gentle revolution.” How’s it going? Are we getting more comfortable with discussing death?

Hebb: The past six years we have seen a global sea change around end-of-life discussions. The media covers end of life with much greater frequency. Our medical practitioners can now be reimbursed for end of life planning and conversations with patients, and we are seeing a rise in people completing end of life documentation. More importantly, it is not exclusively seen as a morbid or weird conversation. People are beginning to see that talking about death is, in fact, the opposite: These are conversations about how we want to live.

YAU: Why is it so important to address it? We know it’s going to happen. Do we really need to dwell on the subject before it does?

Hebb: Well, if we applied that kind of fatalism to sex – why talk about it, we know it’s going to happen – we would live in an even more toxic world. Yes, we are all going to die. And if we don’t have some basic literacy, basic death literacy, we won’t be able to make empowered decisions about our own death, end of life care, and how we are remembered.

Our loved ones want to know what we want during our final chapter. They want to know how to celebrate us and what our wishes are so that they can be honoured. Depression and grief is lengthened and deepened, if our loved ones don’t know our wishes. It is a compassionate act to speak about these things openly, and with nuance. The legal documents don’t tell a rich enough story. We need open discussion.

YAU: One of the common beliefs about hosting a dinner where death is discussed is that it would be depressing. What can you tell readers to assure them this is not the case?

I have never been to a depressing death dinner. It is really a dinner about life, and talking about our mortality, when well-framed, increases our vitality. Depression is often tied to repression. The open expression of our our feelings, fears and hopes is a well known curative for many types of depression.

YAU: What are some basic guidelines for hosting a Death Over Dinner event?

Hebb: Don’t cook or serve something that stresses you out! If you are hosting, make something simple, or order takeout. The food is not as important as the setting and the host always sets the mood for a gathering. Make sure you have candles available to light for people who have died. Each death dinner begins with a quick remembrance. Say something you are afraid to say. Vulnerability is the most effective tool at the table. Don’t rush the evening. It could be over in an hour, or it might take three. Make “I” statements. It is not a political conversation, and there are no experts when it comes to death.

YAU: What has surprised you most about the response and impact of your work around death issues?

Hebb: Well, that it went viral. I had a hunch that people were ready for this, but it has been extraordinary to see it spread all over the globe, so quickly and so powerfully.


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Michele Sponagle
Michele Sponagle
Michele Sponagle is a prolific lifestyle journalist based in Paris, Ontario, who has contributed to many leading media outlets, from the Washington Post to Canadian Living.