Starting the death conversation
The Conversations Project, run by Antonia Rolls and Gail Willington
“Conversations about the End of Life, Finding Time to Think in our Busy World.” Blog by Antonia Rolls, pictured.
Many of us find thinking about death too uncomfortable to do. But what if you’re curious about this end of life business? What if we know someone who is ill, if we know someone who knows someone who is dying and we don’t know what to do or think or say? There is much in the media about dying these days; it's a popular topic. There are excellent resources – like the websites of Dying Matters and Final Fling. There are books about the experience of loss, there are books about dying itself, like Philip Gould’s account of his dying “When I Die” and Dr Kate Granger’s account of her process of dying in her books “The Other Side” and “The Bright Side”. But where do you go to talk about it if you don’t want to fear you look odd, or gloomy, or obsessed? Where do you go to just... chat?
My friend and colleague Gail and I were discussing this. Gail runs the Elizabeth Way Family Funeral Services in Lancashire, and I run the A Graceful Death exhibition and project from West Sussex (an exhibition of portraits and words from the end of life). Gail and I come across all sorts of people who don’t think about dying, until it happens in their world. They then have to take a crash course in end of life matters just when they are least able to cope. We need a place to not just talk, but to chat, we decided. And so, we created the Conversations Project.
The Conversations would be about two hours long, we decided. We would meet in places within the community, everyone would be welcome, it would be free, we would provide tea and cake and see what happened.
Conversations about the end of life, finding time to think in our busy worlds began in Lancashire, with Gail, her mortuary assistant Tami and me. We hosted the first informal session, with plenty of tea and cake, and found that people came and talked about what was on their minds. Gail and I had created a plan for this first session, but it wasn’t needed. People just talked. It was wonderful. After this first Conversation, I began to promote them in West Sussex where I live, and Gail continued to have them in Lancashire, where she lives.
One of the first sessions I held in Bognor was in a Waffle Bar. It was less successful, and not many people turned up. It was quite hard work: the conversations didn’t flow. I know now that people did turn up but couldn’t work out which table was holding the event, and went away again. I learned that I need to be bold, and to make our presence safe, known and comfortable so that nervous strangers can join us without feeling foolish. I also saw that despite wanting those who are attending to lead the conversations, I needed to start them off and facilitate more.
The latest Conversation, held in Bognor again, was wonderful. It took place in the Salvation Army Community Centre. I publicised it with abandon, took the lead, and was amazed at the room full of people. Some had experience, some hadn't. One lady had not the first thought about dying, had never even considered it, but had come along to hear what everyone else was saying. Another lady had been given the all clear from cancer and was living each day as if it was a gift. This Conversation covered pain, euthanasia, atheism, laughter and stillbirth. This is what I want. A place to chat about these things, as they occur in our lives, without anyone having to have an answer.
The idea of the Conversations has caught the attention of like-minded professionals who work in end of life care. I have been joined and supported in each session by palliative care nurses, community workers and ministers. It seems the Conversations have touched a chord, and everyone wants to come and take part. My aim is to provide a constructive, safe, easy and interesting environment for local people, anyone and everyone, to talk to each other, and us, about end of life issues, about the process of dying, about how to prepare, how long it takes, what it looks like, what to say, what to feel, how to cope, is it OK to laugh and so on. What it is not is a therapy or teaching session. It is not a place to get help or a place to meet the professionals. It is a place to meet other people with similar questions, to chat over tea and cake, and open this conversation that we all need to have.
The next Conversations is from 10am-12pm on Tuesday 28 October at the New Park Community Centre in Chichester. All welcome, entrance free, tea and cake provided.
How Antonia's own devastating loss inspired her exhibition, A Graceful Death
For more information contact Antonia at email@example.com