Death, Dying and Dessert

I was in the midst of talking with my mom about hospice for her sister when I came across Susan Lieberman on the web.  Because I'm suffering from summer brain, I can't remember how I found her.  I get emails and notifications all the time when something is death related. I guess it doesn't matter, but I'm so glad I found her book, "Death, Dying and Dessert: Reflections on 20 Questions about Dying."  I have a TON of books on death, but I found her book to be a very helpful guide for those who are just starting to think about it and what things they should be getting in order.  I think it would be a great gift book.

And here she is!  Like me, she's lived in a lot of other places before settling in the Lone Star State.

So, let's get started...

DW:  What made you want to write a book about death?

Susan Lieberman:  When my 92-year-old mother slid from independence into decline and ultimately death, I realized how little I knew about illness and all the decisions that come in a healthcare crisis. And I also realized that when she died, I would be next up. I didn’t want my children to face the same anxiety and stress, the chaos, both internal and external, that I experienced. So I began to study death and dying.

As part of the learning process, I asked some women friends if they wanted to come to dinner one night to talk about death and dying. As you can imagine, I didn’t get many takers but five of us sat down together. That was over three years ago. Now there are 20 women in the group. Every eight weeks or so we take on a different topic related to death, dying and aging, triggered by a conversation question.

I suppose it sounds odd to say we have loved talking about dying, but it has been a really positive experience for all of us. We have all become less anxious, better informed, less afraid. I wanted to bring our dinner conversations to those who couldn’t show up at the table.

I’m a writer. I’ve done seven other books so writing a book isn’t unusual for me. I seem to write the books I need to read. Writing is my own kind of therapy; it helps me find clarity. Many of my books addressed earlier developmental stages. This seems to be where I am headed next so it made sense to want to think about it.

DW:  What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?

Susan Lieberman:  The hardest part was getting started. I began thinking seriously about this book a year before anything worthwhile appeared on the computer. Three times I sat down to begin…and nothing happened. It just didn’t come in any way that felt authentic. Then, in October of 2012, I sat down again and it just appeared. By December, I had a complete draft. The book went to the layout person the end of March.

What makes a good book a better book is the editing of what you already have. I wanted so much for this book to be easily readable and to give lots of value to anyone who bought it. Making sure I did my best to deliver on that by editing the draft was a challenge. I worked at it intensely.

DW:  As you say in your book, most people believe they will die; they just don't expect it to happen in their lifetime. Why do you think that is?

Susan Lieberman:  We come factory-ready to focus on living. Although we are dying from the moment we are born, it’s not, of course, where our attention goes. To think about leaving this delicious world is not attractive to most of us.

Our ego wants to be in control, and there is no controlling death, but by imaging we are going beat it, we feel we have some control. Second, our culture hides death. We tuck it away most often in hospitals and when we have to watch that, it can be painful to see. It scares us. Denial is a sensible strategy to escape thinking about our own demise. Doesn’t it sometimes seem that we regard aging and dying as failures. Look at the language in obituaries...”she battled courageously…he fought a long and valiant fight..” It’s the language of war and in war, there are winners and losers so when we die, we are losers. But you don’t wage war against yourself. Death is another stage of development that each of us comes to in our own time. We don’t yet talk about it that way.

So many people have told me that dying scares them. Who wants to be scared? But if we can figure out what we scared of and what we can do to make it easier, then maybe we can find our way to think about, talk about and prepare for the inevitable.

DW:  On your website, it says you are an "end of life consultant." What does that involve?

Susan Lieberman:  I talk with healthy people about end-of-life issues. Sometimes I meet with individuals who are not healthy or those whose loved ones are facing death, but mainly I talk with groups of people who are in the fullness of life. My first interest is in getting people to think about dying, just for a little bit, while it is abstract and less personal and to understand what they need to do to make things easier when it gets very personal.

I am certified by the Association of Death Education and Counseling as a thanatologist. I joke that this means I have a skull and crossbones tattooed on my left thigh.

DW:  You discuss having a "death, dying and dessert" group. Is your group open to the public, or do you keep it going with the same group of people?

Susan Lieberman:  My Death, Dying and Dessert group grows out of larger women’s group, and all its members come from that group. We were all women over 50 moving from our mainstream lives to What’s Next. When new women join the larger group, they are welcome to join in our conversations, but no, it’s not open to the public generally.

Just this week, the New York Times had a front page article about Death Cafes springing up around the country. These are open groups that meet generally in coffee shops to talk about the same sorts of things we have been discussing. I’ve included the questions we have used over the years in Appendix I of the book, and any group could form and use or adapt our list.

DW:  What has been the topic that has caused the greatest debate within your group?

Susan Lieberman:  Pamela, I don’t have an answer for this question. I cannot think of any topic, even euthanasia, that provoked great debate. One of the things that makes this group work so well is that nobody feels compelled to convince others of her opinions. The conversation just puts things out there, and people take home what they want. Of course, we see things differently, and there is no “rule” about disagreeing. I’m not sure why it doesn’t cause debate, but it doesn’t. Yes, sometimes people will say, “Gee, that’s not my experience,” or “I never thought of it in those terms,” but I don’t think one person in the group believe there is a single set of right answers that everyone should adopt. Our focus is figuring out what each of us thinks is right for her.

Maybe the topic that we have struggled with the most has to do with how we will be able to ask for and receive help if and when we need it. We have talked about the loss of independence. This seems to provoke more fear than dying.

Oddly, one of the least good conversations we had was about the role of God in our thinking about death and dying. People were very candid about what they thought, but it didn’t generate any sparked conversation. I think each one of us wanted so much to be respectful of other’s views that there was more listening than talking.