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Talking About Death Over Dinner In Southwest Florida

Jessica Meszaros

People in Southwest Florida are having a new and sometimes uncomfortable kind of conversation at the dinner table… about death. Medical professionals say most people are not preparing for their deaths. And this usually leaves families scrambling to make choices for their loved ones. So to fix that, there’s this worldwide initiative called Death Over Dinner.

Lindy Smith is sitting at her oval table, surrounded by six friends. Salad is their first course. They pass around a tray of toppings, like walnuts and artichoke hearts, as Smith guides the death conversation.

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WGCU News

"What we're going to do now is think about somebody in your life who passed away," she tells her guests. "We're going to go around the table and we're going to tell everybody about that person and why they're important to you."

Smith works with patients at Hope Hospice in Fort Myers. And she says that by the time families talk about death, it’s usually too late. They don’t know what to do about things like artificial nutrition and life support. That’s what inspired her to host a “Death Over Dinner” event. Smith’s friend Laurie Morris sits to her left. Morris talks about her dad. 

"My dad died 20 years ago and he lived right nearby here, actually. He died when he was only 74. And at that time, I didn’t know the first thing about hospice... I didn't know about any of that. So, I did the best that I could for him based on the knowledge that I had at the time," she says, choking back tears. "But after that, I learned a little bit...  and I would do things differently today."

This dinner is one of thousands that have happened in as many as 20 countries since the Death Over Dinner initiative started in 2013. Michael Hebb founded the website that helps people conduct these conversations. 

"I grew up in a family that didn't know how to talk about death," says Hebb. "My father was actually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was in third grade and died when I was 13. And at that point, our family really avoided the topic."

Then about four years ago, a couple doctors told Hebb most people want to die at home, but only a quarter of them actually do.

"So we have this very costly, both financially and emotionally, very costly system where we don't get our wishes fulfilled." says Michael Hebb.

"So we have this very costly, both financially and emotionally, very costly system where we don’t get our wishes fulfilled," he says. 

Moni Franks with Lee Health agrees. She’s assisted people with terminal illnesses for about a decade. And she says not planning for death sometimes pulls families apart.

"It can create a lot of disconnect between family members because no one really knows what the patient wants so they bring their own opinions," says Franks. 

She recommends anyone older than 18 to write-up two documents: first, a living will. Then, a wish list that designates an advocate to carry out those wishes.

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WGCU News

Back at Lindy Smith’s home, her dinner guests express their wishes over plates of pasta and meatballs:

"I wanna have a peaceful passing-- go with some dignity, have somebody that I cherish/cherishes me just hold my hand and let me go," says Barb Price.

"I don’t want to be kept alive if I am incapacitated in any way," says Cynthia Dike.

"Don't tuck the sheets around my feet...I do not want any music," says Lyndi Smith, making her friends laugh. 

And Laurie Morris says her wish is to keep her sense of humor. She says she also wishes to have the courage to have this conversation with her brother, even though he doesn't want to have it.  

"So I think I learned that it's worth trying to have the conversation with my brother," she says. 

The women plan to meet again a year from now, and swap stories about what happened when they each brought up death over dinner with their loved ones. Lindy Smith concludes the evening with a toast. 

"Just think about how moving forward you're going to be able to write your own history on what is important to you, so that you can know that what you're doing is going to prepare everybody for your end of life, which from the day you’re born is happening," says Smith. "So cheers to everybody!"

Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WUSF Public Media, and former reporter and host of All Things Considered for WGCU News.