Death: It's on the Menu

Yesterday, I fretted over setting a nice table and creating a dinner that would provide a certain level of comfort to the six people who would be coming to my house.  I knew at some point during the meal that someone was going to cry, and not about the burnt garlic bread or my poor selection of wine.  They were going to cry about someone they loved who had died. I set out a fresh box of Kleenex near the dining table in case anyone needed to wipe their tears or blow their nose.  Sounds like the fixings for a fun evening, huh?  Actually, it was.

August 24 was the inaugural event for Death Over Dinner, which encourages people to gather around a table, eat and talk about death. Since I've been talking to people about death for four years now, the topic of conversation didn't freak me out in the least, but having several people that I really didn't know over to my house and feeding them food that I'd made, did. 

You see, I've got some social anxiety issues.  But one of the things I learned in therapy is to ride out the discomfort and to run towards things that bring on a fear response.  Dinner parties, or really gatherings in general, tend to do that to me.

So what did I do?  I hand picked everyone in attendance, not for how well I knew them, but for how little.  Three of the people I invited were from my writer's group.  Sure, we say hello and we've heard each other read, but it's not like we're bacon and eggs hanging out at the Ihop.  The fourth was a woman I'd met at a local writing conference.  Her dad was a mortician and she'd written a memoir about that, so I thought she'd have some interesting insight. Rounding out the table was my sister-in-law, who brought a lovely appetizer and a good bottle of wine.  My husband was also there and it was wonderful to hear what he had to say.  I made lasagna, angel hair pasta with pesto (for the vegetarians), salad and the best freaking garlic bread ever.  My sister gave me this recipe and I swear, it's got magical butter and Parmesan powers.

And there we are.  I took the pic, so I'm not in the shot, but there's my chair and my half eaten plate of food.  Because I am technologically challenged and I hadn't used my fancy dancy recorder in a couple of years, I failed to tape our conversation.  I had to take notes. Not an easy task when the conversation is flowing as fast as the mid-level Pinot Noir in my glass.  

As recommended by the DOD folks, I started out the dinner with a toast to acknowledge someone who had died.  Then we all went around the dinner table and said what we admired about that person.  I thought for sure that my sister-in-law or my husband would mention their mother who died last November, but they didn't.  After everyone had gone home, Erik and I discussed this fact while we washed dishes.  He said it was too early in the evening to break down and openly weep in front of strangers, so he felt that he and his sister both made "safe" choices. I ended up talking about Lovina.  I was the last to speak and usually this totally freaks me out, but I was so engaged listening to everyone else that I didn't sweat it.

After breaking the ice, and yes one person got teary eyed, I posed the first question.  Have you talked about your end of life wishes with anyone?  With the exception of the mortician's daughter, who already has a power point presentation in the works, very few of us had. Sure, there was a will composed by one attendee when she was twelve, but we all agreed we needed to get those wishes in writing, even when we're talking about who gets our My Little Pony collection.  Since we reside in Texas, here's the link for that. You can also search the site for your own state. For a regular old will about who gets all your stuff when you're gone, you can consult an attorney or buy software. We also talked about burial and cremation and viewings.  One woman, a hairdresser by day/writer by night, mentioned that she fulfilled her grandmother's wishes by styling her hair at the funeral home. She revealed that it didn't bother her to do this until she placed her hand over her grandmother's eyes to shield her from the hairspray and realized it was an unnecessary gesture.  Her grandmother was dead.

Then I asked the question, why do you think most people fear death?  For some, it was the fear of the after life or the lack thereof.  For one woman it was the actual act of dying and the anger she expected to feel at those who would go on living after she'd gone.  For her husband, he equated his feelings to that of a child that doesn't want to go to bed because he's afraid that he'll miss out on something.  The mortician's daughter felt that her father's view of people's mistakes surrounding their death created a perfectionism in her.  And the hairdresser, revealed that she didn't fear death because she'd been there and already done that.  When I sent out my invite, I asked people if they had any dietary restrictions.  She responded poppy seeds.  It turns out she flat lined before a surgery because of the morphine drip. I'm not going to tell you what happened because I think she needs to write about the experience, if she hasn't already. 

Then we talked about grief, specifically what people can do when we are grieving.  I think what we all agreed upon is that being in the presence of people is good.  Being able to tell stories about the person that died is helpful. People who listen are awesome.  Phrases like, "She's in a better place," or "He had a long life," or "At least they're not suffering anymore" are not particularly helpful  Presence is.  Food is even better. Someone who asks, "How can I help you?" or "Do you need anything?" and they're dropping off a Pyrex dish of food is spectacular.  My husband mentioned that its helpful to have people who will still listen months after a loss.  Initially we are inundated with friends and family who want to help, but grief goes on, long after the flowers have wilted and the sympathy cards have been put away.

Finally we talked about death and social media.  The hairdresser learned about the death of her brother from a Facebook post waiting for a Diet Coke at a Sonic Drive-In.  Not exactly the best way to be told someone you love has died. We all agreed that there needs to be some sort of etiquette involved in the digital age. We all thought it would be a great idea if a death wasn't announced on the internet until immediate family members and friends have been notified with a call or even better, in person.

I had such a wonderful time and I think my guests did too.  Heck, they wanted to do it again at their houses. I think that this death over dinner movement might just spread and be way bigger and more heavily attended next year.  I know I will do it again, probably in the next month or two.  My husband was particularly impressed by the event.  Even though we've talked a lot about death, it was the first time he'd spoken about it with other people that he'd never met.  And he liked it.  Sometimes the most difficult conversations can create the greatest intimacy among strangers.  And like Martha Stewart, the queen of entertaining, would say, "that's a good thing."