Making light of a taboo topic
The café is bustling, packed to the brim on a cold January afternoon in Haliburton. Normally, Baked and Battered wouldn’t see 40 patrons crammed into its dining room midday in the off-season, but on this day they are hosting a special event.
Jan. 25 is the town’s first ever Death Café and curious, polite Haliburtonians squish past one another, bulky parkas tucked under arms, clunky wet boots navigating tightly packed chairs.
The air is warm and smells like sweets and coffee.
Yvonne Heath stands up in front of the room and introduces herself. She’s facilitating this event and though her business is all about death and dying, today she’s here to guide conversation.
“If we talk about death, I promise you will not die,” she smiles, referring to a belief by some that talking about death might bring it on. But some might cry, she says, so there are Kleenex boxes on each table.
The Death Café is a concept developed in the U.K. and has certain rules – it’s not commercial, talk about death should be free and open, and there must be tea and goodies.
It’s part of a larger movement to open up conversation around death and to move western culture toward acceptance of the inevitable, something that isn’t always easy in a society that thwarts death at every turn.
The Death Café has so many people with so many stories to tell that introductions take a full hour to complete. Some share the pain of dealing with family members with terminal illness; others met death early when their parents died young. There are suicides and near death experiences. Many are preparing for their own deaths.
“You can be consumed by grief or you can be empowered,” Heath says. She’s studiously avoiding talking about her book, Love Your Life to Death, about the importance of end of life planning, but its topics keep coming up. Plus, many in the room have read her work and bring up lessons they’ve learned.
There is a hunger to take on this taboo head-on, but the desires of the room are mixed. Some seem stuck on talking about planning, while others want spiritual discussion of what comes next.
What is a good death? How best do you choose funeral music? How do you talk to someone who is grieving? How do you talk to someone who is dying?
The questions spiral out and it becomes clear that nothing is going to be solved in one afternoon.
Heath has become something of a fixture in the Haliburton Highlands over the last year and that’s partially because people seem more receptive than ever about talking about death and dying.
“I think things like the Death Café are going to make a difference,” says Gena Robertson, executive director of SIRCH Community Services. “I think we absolutely have to talk more openly about it. It is a part of life and we’ve always tended to avoid it. It’s almost like it will jinx you.”
SIRCH launched hospice services in the county in 1994 and in the past several years created the bereavement program Journey Through Grief.
“I remember when Rick died, the community was incredibly supportive,” Robertson says of her husband, who died several years ago. “There wasn’t a day for months that I didn’t get a phone call or have somebody drop by or have food left on my porch. But lots of people don’t have that experience.”
Robertson said some people find life more lonely following the death of a family member. Acquaintances avoid them. Friends’ invitations become less frequent.
“I think it’s worse when people avoid you, which happens lots when your spouse dies and you’ve always been part of a couple and now you’re not,” she says.
All largely due to discomfort around dealing with death.
“I would encourage people to have whatever conversations they want to have. But at least to think about it, discuss it with people around them, discuss it with people they don’t know.”
Journey Through Grief is another piece in the puzzle. Another signpost that people are looking to open up about dying, death and grief. Groups meet in the spring and fall with a trained facilitator moving through a prescribed program about coping with grief.
Death talk can seem negative or morbid, Robertson says, which deters people from even broaching the topic.
Often those conversations come up when death is imminent.
Haliburton Highlands Health Services has invested in its end-of-life care in recent years. Partially as a result of provincially mandated integration, which saw SIRCH’s hospice program migrate to HHHS, but also through increased funding, new staff have been hired and new programs launched.
Hospice has expanded from community-based care to include the long-term care homes, acute care in the hospital and the palliative care suite, which is about to expand at Haliburton hospital.
“It’s hard explaining what I do over the phone,” says Beth Archibald, the palliative care liaison with HHHS. “I have to be pretty broad. Sometimes I don’t say my title at the beginning because it can be a real barrier to people wanting to talk to me.”
Archibald’s role is making sure patients know their options, that they’ve been given all of the information needed about what can be done as they face end of life.
While Canada is rapidly aging, the Highlands is doing so even more rapidly.
About a third of the population is 65 or older as many baby boomers choose the Highlands to retire and young people leave faster than they return.
That means the community needs to be poised to handle the senior population – and a higher percentage facing palliative care.
But even in later years, many assiduously avoid the topic, leaving family members and friends lost after a death occurs.
At Heath’s most recent appearance in Haliburton, she talked to the membership of the local CARP chapter, advocating for open discussion about death.
Her message is crucial, says Bob Stinson, president of CARP, as many will go to great lengths to avoid making any sort of preparations. The issue is of such importance, that the national CARP leadership encouraged its members to tackle the issue with their local chapters.
“We were challenged by the national office at the time to address this issue more thoroughly in our communities,” says Stinson. “I took that as a bit of a challenge and came back and told my board we’d better get on board with this.”
In his own life, Stinson said he has struggled to get his family to talk about death.
“I’m very comfortable with it. I know it’s coming. You’ve got to think about what’s going to happen and who’s going to do what,” he said.
At the CARP AGM, Heath takes on a different role than she did at the Death Café. She explains she’s hoping to do a Ted Talk, a popular online lecture series, and she delivers her well-honed message using props and slides as her husband records everything with a small video camera.
She tells a story from her book of a man named Homer, who died what she called “a good death.” He knew he was dying and dictated letters to his whole family.
He knotted his own tie for his visitation. He had lockets engraved for his daughters and wife. He had his family practise his eulogy.
“The only thing I would change about Homer’s story is when he did these end-of-life plans,” Heath says. Homer started making his plans after he knew he was dying.
“Imagine what his family would have lost out on.”
For this reason, Heath is advocating everyone plan for their deaths, no matter age or health status. No one can predict the end, she says, and being ready means fewer conflicts among family and friends and a much better chance one’s wishes will be honoured in the last months, weeks and days of life – and after.
In an interview with the Echo, Heath said she wants to be part of a shift in perspective on death, removing the fear and silence and replacing it with openness and frank discussion.
“My goal is to create a culture of change where we normalize these conversations for all generations,” she says.
In Haliburton, the seeds of that change have clearly been planted.