By Susan Riemer and Anne Atwell
For Vashon Community Care
Michael Hebb, noted speaker, author and co-founder of the Death Over Dinner project, will lead an interactive conversation next week, exploring how our lives can become richer and more meaningful if we face our mortality.
Hebb, labeled a “food provocateur by the New York Times, is leading a “gentle revolution” using the dinner table, and many other virtual and live forums, as the fuel for answering critical questions about living and dying. One of his latest ventures, the End of Life Collective, is a virtual community intended to assist people with questions around death and grief, as Hebb calls it “life’s most vulnerable time.”
His talk next week, Death Is Medicine for the Living, will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 6, over Zoom. The event is sponsored by Vashon Community Care, The Vashon Conversation for the Living About Dying, and the Vashon Senior Center. One of the goals for the evening is to encourage participants to complete their advance directives — wishes regarding the end of life — and then share that information with loved ones. Too often, this preparation is overlooked.
“How we end our lives is the costliest and the most important conversation that we’re not having in the United States,” says Hebb. “For many years, I have used the table as a magnet to bring people together to break bread and share ideas and opinions around controversial topics. This topic of death is relevant to all of us, and as we lean in, we quickly realize what’s really important in our lives.”
While the event will be held over Zoom, audience members will be actively involved. Following Hebb’s talk, in small groups, they will explore topics related to preparing for the end of life, such as if they have assigned a health care proxy, completed an advance care directive or finalized a will.
Organizers say that too often they see people who are in the final stages of their lives who do not have a plan for their last days.
“This omission can be devastating for both the person who is dying and for their family,” said Vashon Community Care Executive Director Wendy Kleppe. “Our shared goal is to help create end-of-life plans — including advance directives — so they are not an afterthought. And that perhaps through planning, we may all discover that death can be a medicine for living full, meaningful lives.”
Carol Spangler is the founder of the Vashon Conversation for the Living About Dying, which has hosted several Vashon events in recent years and currently has 15 trained facilitators to assist people with completing advance directives. Many islanders may remember the group’s first offering: a four-day event in 2017 focused on living and dying, complete with live music, an art walk and a sold-out Death Over Dinner gathering that drew 100 people. Hebb, in fact, gave the keynote address. The Vashon Conversation went on to host other events, including a forum on palliative care and a weekend with a Sufi death expert. Members of the group have remained committed to their goal of islanders completing their advance directives, thinking through — and talking about — what they want their final days to be like, who they want to be near them, and how we all can support the wishes of those closest to us.
“This is a conversation the entire country needs to be having,” Spangler said.
The COVID-19 crisis of this last year has lent urgency to their work. Spangler noted that experts estimate that every person who died from COVID left nine grieving people behind, totaling more than 5 million grieving people across the country, due to COVID alone.
“This is the perfect opportunity to be in this conversation, which is about dying, our mortality and the tenderness and fragility of our lives, and about how do we become more able to be in life, knowing it is not forever,” she said. “We are in a time of recognizing and learning from our losses. These conversations can help us heal.”
Registration is available at vashoncommunitycare.org under “Upcoming Events.” The first 25 people will receive free copies of Hebb’s book, “Let’s Talk About Death (Over Dinner).” For more information about the event, call Vashon Community Care at 206-567-6147. For assistance completing advance directives, email email@example.com.
Susan Riemer is the Community Relations Director, and Anne Atwell is the Development Director, at Vashon Community Care.