Let’s Talk About Death — At the Dinner Table
We prepare our kids for all sorts of scary possibilities life could throw at us. But why don't we talk to them about the one we know will happen to us all?
Every night families gather around their dinner tables to refuel, unwind, and connect. The table is the home’s communication hub, from the mundane (“How was school?” “Good.”) to the ethereal (“I think sharks are beautiful.”), the logistical (“Let’s go to Disney World this summer!”) to the profound (“Is climate change going to burn the world?”). The table is where we gather with extended family and close friends to celebrate milestones, engage in debate, exchange ideas. In other words, the table is society’s most important cultural space.
Michael Hebb, entrepreneur, writer, chef, and dinner table conversation auteur, recognizes the power of the table and taps into it. Hebb trained as an architect before becoming a restaurateur and chef. When his four Portland restaurants failed in quick succession in 2006,Hebb started thinking about the table separate from the restaurant. “I didn’t want to be in restaurants in the first place. I was always more interested in shifting culture and being a bit of an architect of culture, so I began hosting topic-based dinners with brilliant people.” He hosted presidents Obama and Clinton and thought leaders at organizations like the World Economic Forum, TED, and Nature Conservancy. These dinner conversations tackled intense topics like genocide, homelessness, wealth disparity, and war.
Hebb looked for a way to bring his dinner conversations to a wider crowd. During a train ride from Portland to Seattle, Hebb got into a conversation with two physicians who told him that 75% of Americans say that they want to die at home but only 25% do. The light bulb went off almost instantly. How we end our lives, Hebb has said, “was the most important and costly conversation America was not having” — at the dinner table or anywhere for that matter. In 2013, he co-founded Death Over Dinner, a sort of DIY version of his topic-based dinners. Anybody can hold a death dinner — the idea is to gather family and close friends and speak honestly about how you want to die, what frightens you, what’s important to you. Death Over Dinner makes the experience of hosting such a heavy event pretty easy — sending invitations to your guests, providing conversational prompts, post-gathering next steps, guidance for hosting and moderating the conversation.
More than a million death dinners have been held in the eight years since the project’s launch. Hebb lives in Seattle and has two daughters, ages 13 and 21, who have different takes on his pursuit. “My 13-year-old just loves the darker side of things. She is totally down to talk about death. The 21-year-old… not so much. ‘It’s like, whatever, Dad; it’s your thing.’” No matter the reaction, Hebb thinks the conversation is one that can prevent a lot of pain and suffering. “The activity of talking about hard things — sex, death, trauma — it builds this muscle of vulnerability. It’s essential for empathy, connection, sharing. It’s at the core of family life. Death as medicine gives us the opportunity to create resilience and connection. It helps identify priorities: What the hell matters to you?”
Alex French: Talking about death over dinner is a universally compelling idea but also a deeply personal one. When did you first face death?
“We … say that there are five stages of grief. No, there are not. That’s bullsh*t. Grief’s not linear; life’s not linear. I mean, nothing’s linear.”
Michael Hebb: I get that talking about death is important, a priority even, but there’s a good reason none of us talk about it. It’s frightening — the one great fear. I was grappling, in the lead up to talking to you, about what it is about death that really truly scares me. I have two answers. First: The penultimate moment just before you go, knowing that your life is over.
Looking back over the life that you’ve led, and does it amount to what you think it should have been? And part of that is fear of the unknown, and part of that is fear of pain, right? And we can piece those things out and say, “OK, the part of it that is fear of the unknown,” you can’t change that. Yeah. It’s just going to be unknowable. So how can you get better at being with the unknowable? And that’s going to impact every part of your life in a positive way, if you work on being good with the unknown, instead of being reactive. As I said, “respond, not react.” Responding has a breath in the middle of it.
But even more than my life’s penultimate moment, I’m terrified by the thought of losing my wife. (I won’t allow myself the thought of losing my kids.) She’s such a part of my life and has been for so long — for her to suddenly be absent. I go through each day cataloging the things that I can’t wait to tell her.
There’s going to be a tremendous amount of pain and suffering to get to whoever the new person (the new you) that comes out of that experience, right? Think about it this way: A life ends, but there’s also a birth canal there, right? And the people that actually do go through the work of feeling the grief, not pushing it aside, are reshaped in that kind of birth canal that the living then go through. They do get reborn into but into a different form. It’s really hard to go through that transformation, because you’re going to have to let the part of yourself that did tell your wife everything die, right? Because it’s unavailable to you anymore. There’s more than one person dying in that equation. So, of course it’s hard, and we’re just learning now, I would say, how to grieve, or remembering how to grieve.
Over the past two years we’re coming up on 1 million deaths domestically, with more than 6 million deaths internationally. Death suddenly felt like it had a different reach. How has COVID changed the conversations that you’ve been hearing at death dinners?
We now have a collective experience of death. Prior to COVID, the Gen Xers, I guess, to some extent, boomers, but definitely Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z, have only encountered death as a very personal experience — especially in the United States. There’s been plenty of places around the world that have had great, horrific tragedies that have caused a massive number of deaths.But in the U.S., this is the first experience of a collective death. This is also known as a mortality ceiling, as they would call it, in psychology — a deep encounter with death or mortality. And you can’t avoid it during COVID. But there is a difference, psychologically speaking, between a personal experience and a collective experience. Many people are having personal experiences of loss. And then they’re also dealing with the collective. We don’t know a tremendous amount about the impact of collective grief and collective trauma. So it’s a very hard thing to study and understand, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that people are more willing, or more available, too, or getting the type of medicine from the experience, like they do a personal death.
If a child isn’t asking questions about death, then you don’t need to talk to a kid about death. That’s fine.
A personal death, if it is turned toward, not repressed, has a really powerful way of transforming people’s lives and perspective. There’s an incredible Confucius quote that says “We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.” That speaks to a reality that when we really grasp mortality, our world does get bigger and deeper and more meaningful. That is, if we don’t repress it, or not take the medicine of the experience, of the loss. Because that’s not to say it’s not going to be painful, and I’m not saying that is great; it just is. And we have an opportunity to learn from it or not.But collective death doesn’t make people more available to the conversation of it. I don’t know what the medicine is of collective death, and I don’t know that anybody does. If you talk to people that have been through the Holocaust, there’s a vastly different experience than somebody who’s lost their grandparent. The pandemic is going to turn into an epidemic, and we are not going to know when that happened or how we should feel about it. Sadly, what we’re learning thus far is it doesn’t mean that people are more willing to talk about advanced care directives and talk about end of life planning. It does mean that people are more willing to talk about grief.
So that is a benefit, grief. And also, any kind of mental struggle, and mental well-being and mental health, is now open for public discourse, where it was taboo. Part of that is just the social media culture that we live in, and driven by millennials and Gen Z, who are willing to talk about the hard sh*t, versus boomers, the Silent Generation, even Gen Xers who won’t.
What about the five stages of grief?
There are a lot of cultures that grieve well. But we did things like say that there are five stages of grief. No, there are not. That’s bullsh*t. Grief’s not linear; life’s not linear. I mean, nothing’s linear. We know that now. But certainly, grief isn’t. It’s a false and gross oversimplification of something that is vast and really not knowable. That’s just something you end up having to go through, and you’re either open to it or you contract away from it. And if you do, you probably won’t live as long, and you certainly won’t live as happily, but there is happiness available to people after great loss. It just takes a lot of work.
“’I’m here to have the conversations that people aren’t having with you. How are you feeling? Are you scared?’”
How do you talk to a kid about death?
“I’m here to have the conversations that people aren’t having with you. How are you feeling? Are you scared?”
That’s the best you can do. If it’s somebody who is closer to you — a parent, a spouse, a grandparent — I say go there, show up, be there toward the end. Nobody ever regrets going. And then have courageous conversations with that person. Conversations that make you uncomfortable. There’s really something to be said for getting to say these things, share memories, share love.If a child isn’t asking questions about death, then you don’t need to talk to a kid about death. That’s fine. Even if somebody close to them has died, and they’re like, “Nope, don’t want to talk about it,” that’s OK. That’s my belief. Psychology people that back it up.Now, if a kid is curious, the thing not to do is to repress or stifle their curiosity. You want to attend to that curiosity, and you can do that with more questions, is the first way, especially on a topic where you don’t know the answer. Ask them some questions: Is it a fear? Is it a curiosity? Do they hear something about what happened? Do they hear about burning in hell or going to heaven? Are they worried about it? Is it just that they don’t know what it is?
And then follow that with honesty. “Hey, I don’t know the answer to these questions, and actually, the idea of death makes me a bit anxious, too.” That’s a fine thing to say to a kid. We all know that when we hear that somebody else is made anxious by a thing, it makes those two people less anxious, a camaraderie. But you can also tell them, because, “Hey, look, we’re very alive right now. Our hearts are beating. Our bodies are taking care of us. Everybody here right now is alive today, and is going to be alive tomorrow. We’re going to wake up, and we’re going to have a great day. And you’re going to have a long, beautiful life.”
How can you help a child who is grieving?
If your child’s grieving, you’re probably grieving too. So I think learning about together is a great model, and giving kids an understanding that grief can feel like a lot of different things, and that it’s also OK to be “grieving” and laugh your face off and have a great time and forget about it for a while and feel joy, and get more concerned about who’s doing what in middle school and who you have a crush on. Then it can hit you like a wave. And sometimes, it just makes you angry, and sometimes, it makes you sad, and sometimes, it makes you feel a little despondent or depressed. It doesn’t show up like just one thing.Educate yourself, and in the process, educate your child. You want them able to relate to their experience and you want them to be able to feel safe. I think that those are my two principles of parenting. My job is to make sure that my children trust me, and they feel safe.
“Nobody ever regrets going … There’s really something to be said for getting to say these things, share memories, share love.”
Your work on death doesn’t just address big existential questions. A lot of it is practical. The expense and burden of saying goodbye to a loved one, of making arrangements can make death all the more painful. What can I do now that will make the process of dying easier and less painful for myself and my family?
First thing you want to do is name a health care proxy. This is the person who will make decisions for you if you’re not able to speak for yourself or will be making decisions right alongside you if you’re unwell. It’s almost like naming a godparent, which is something people relish and something people are honored to be elected for. Then you have a person you can talk to about what you’re scared of, and you’re terrified of pain, or you’re terrified of sh*tting yourself, or being embarrassed with bodily functions toward the end. Or you can’t imagine not dying next to the ocean, or you need to make sure that you’re cremated, even though you come from a Orthodox Jewish family that won’t let you be cremated. Talk to them, one person that you’ve just selected, and you might only talk about the process of dying or being unwell. You might not talk about what happens to my body afterward, which is fine.The second thing that everybody have is a will, and the Internet has made that very easy, and people can go to freewill.com, or they can go to Trust & Will, or they can go to Nolo, and literally within a couple hours, they can have a completed, even notarized online in many states, will, without leaving their home.
A close friend of mine has been battling cancer. It seemed to be going well, but he’s just found out that it’s spreading and he thinks he’s going to die. How can I help ease his suffering?
“I’m here to have the conversations that people aren’t having with you. How are you feeling? Are you scared?” That’s the best you can do. If it’s somebody who is closer to you — a parent, a spouse, a grandparents — I say go there, show up, be there toward the end. Nobody ever regrets going. And then have courageous conversations with that person. Conversations that make you uncomfortable. There’s really something to be said for getting to say these things, share memories, share love.I almost didn’t spend time with my older sister when she was dying. I hadn’t seen her in years. We had tension. But when I arrived she had this childlike enthusiasm for my presence. Understanding this has changed the way I parent.
We can get pretty dogmatic around parenting. There’s a lot of rules of parenting, a lot of shoulds. With parenting, dogma is not our friend. Being present to our children and really noticing where they don’t feel safe or don’t trust or making sure that they do takes a great deal of flexibility and creativity and it’s rare that any of the parental dogma is going to be helpful in those situations. But being present is more important than “shoulds.”
As you’ve hosted these dinners, has your understanding or your feeling toward your own eventual demise changed at all? Has there been a philosophical or emotional evolution for you?
Yeah, entirely. I mean, it’s almost a muscle. However, it’s the opposite of building muscle. Let’s say there is, there is a result from going back to the topic of death, to reflect on it again, again and again, and some of the results of that look like humility. It looks like acceptance, and being with things as they are. It looks like gratitude. There’s a great deal of the significance of gratitude that lies within thinking about your mortality. But I think most importantly, it’s a practice of surrender, and that’s why I say it’s like the opposite of building muscle, but you can still do the exercise. It’s practicing surrendering. Whereas, most of the things, most of the exercises that we do, are about increasing a bit of control or mastery. That is this great medicine that allows us to really sit in our impermanence, sit in the bigness of everything, and surrender to the fact that we don’t have control. Surrender is an essential part of every wisdom, tradition of every religion.
That’s why people pray: You put yourself in the hands of God. I’m not religious in a specific way, with a specific phase, but there is still incredible power in learning how to surrender. And there’s almost nothing else available to us in the modern age, outside of a religious tradition, that gives us an opportunity to learn how to surrender and learn how to accept, learn how to be grateful and humble. That’s the medicine of this work. I mean, for the last 10 years, it’s been a daily part of my life, and to have the incredible and sacred opportunity to hold space for people, as they’re working through their own relationship to death, and dealing with their grief, and dealing with the bigness of it all. That gift back to me has been one of having immense hope in humanity. Because I get to see how beautiful people are, all the time, when I do this work.
You can find more on Michael Hebb at Deathoverdinner.org or with his second book Let’s Talk About Death (Over Dinner Hebb currently serves as a Board Advisor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.
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