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Conversation Starters: Talking Openly About End-of-Life Plans

Conversation Starters: Talking Openly About End-of-Life Plans
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Published on April 14, 2020

For my family, end of life was a frequent discussion around the breakfast table, as my father, a fourth-generation funeral director, flipped through the obituary section of the newspaper, triple-checking to make sure everything was printed correctly.

For many, if not most people, death is not weaved into the conversation around toast and coffee. But it could be. 

My ever-gentle dad walked many an unprepared family through some of life’s hardest moments, right from the beginning of the grief process. But what if the script was flipped and families came in better prepared, ready to truly celebrate a life well-lived? After all, funerals really are for the living.

Death Positive DC

Death Positive DC is an organization that promotes conversations about end of life and connects people around this topic through social media and in-person events in the Washington, DC, area. Founded in 2017, Death Positive DC helps people of all backgrounds and ages to share cake, coffee and conversations.

“I wanted to create safe and supportive spaces where people who don't have a lot of experience talking about death can begin to feel more comfortable having these conversations,” said end-of-life doula Sarah Farr, the founder of Death Positive DC.

This group seeks to help people do several things, including: 

  • to live with intention and purpose in the face of mortality
  • to build community and connect with like-minded people
  • to help normalize death as a part of life

This group is not therapy, nor grief counseling, but something entirely different. At their in-person events, called Death Cafes, small groups gather to discuss whatever the theme is that evening. It may be how end of life is represented in art or film. It may be a more legalistic discussion about end-of-life preparation around advance directives. But mostly, it’s to talk to each other.

“Many participants enjoy the intergenerational nature of my Death Cafes. People of all races and ethnicities, sexual and gender identities, and religions (or no religion) come to my Death Cafes. There is always room for a variety of perspectives, experiences and questions, and I think the discussions are richer for it,” Sarah said. 

Tips From an End-of-Life Doula

Sarah says she has learned a lot from listening to other people talk about death and grief.

“I think my understanding of grief has evolved tremendously. I've seen that across the board, denying death can cause deep and unnecessary pain. And our misunderstandings about grief also cause immense pain,” Sarah said. She hopes people will consider the following:

  • Talking about death does not have to be depressing, sad or tearful. Oftentimes, our Death Cafe conversations are very funny. People use humor to talk about difficult subjects.
  • Death is part of life. It is not some separate, detached event. It's important to talk about death during non-activated times, meaning don't wait until someone is terminally ill or has died to start these conversations. 
  • Talking about death cannot cause death to happen. Some people truly worry that they may bring about their own demise if they talk about death. But we don't have the power to do that. It is safe to talk about death.

Although Welsh poet Dylan Thomas implores us not to go gentle into that good night, perhaps we can, with thoughtful support from our loved ones. 

~Lauren Evoy Davis

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.  

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