CANNON BEACH —Twenty-two friends and strangers gathered recently to have one of the most important conversations of their lives. The topic: death.
The guided discussion gave participants a way to express their feelings about the concept of dying, remember the death of someone they loved and talk about what they hoped for their loved ones and themselves at the time of their own deaths.
“This discussion isn’t to solve any problems,” said Jenny Sasser, an educational gerontologist who led the 90-minute exchange on Jan. 18. “We’re trying to have a conversation about what matters most to us when we reach our end.”
Held at the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum, the program, “Talking About Dying,” was sponsored by Oregon Humanities through the Oregon Community Foundation.
Although the conversation started somewhat easily when Sasser asked the participants to give a word or phrase that came to them when they thought about dying, the responses turned more difficult after they broke into small groups to talk about their experiences and hopes.
The words the participants used to describe their thoughts about dying ranged from fear to inevitability.
“Wow!” said one member of the group. “Yikes!” said another.
“Comfort, control, choice,” added a third person, and her neighbor added, “compassion.”
“It’s a fact of life,” someone else said.
As they turned to their small groups, Sasser asked them to recall someone in their lives who had already died. How did they live toward their dying? “Not just how did they die, but how did they prepare for it?” Sasser asked. And then, she directed them to discuss their own experiences during their loved ones’ deaths.
The consensus of one group’s members was that “none of us wanted to go to a nursing home,” and they didn’t want to suffer.
“How a loved one dies but also where they die is consequential,” Sasser said.
While one person noted that “not having control (over how death should occur) can create fear and anger,” another person asked, “Can you really control yourself at the time?”
Observing how a loved one dies “shapes our attitudes about our own dying,” Sasser said.
“How we approach our dying can be a gift to others,” she added. “Dying is not disconnected from living. At some point there is an end, and if we live fully to the end, it is a gift for others.”
After the group went into their small groups for a second time, Sasser said she could hear laughter. The groups’ assignment was to discuss their hopes for their own deaths.
“Notice I didn’t say your fears,” Sasser said. Talking about fears sets a different tone for the conversation, she added.
The participants talked about the desire to control the way they die. They discussed the need to talk to their families or friends early about medical preferences during the final days. One of the participants also discussed the need for family members to be willing to let go.
Those who don’t have families or close friends to discuss their dying wishes with could turn to a “death doula,” noted history center director Elaine Trucke, who participated in the conversation.
Like a birth doula, who coaches a pregnant woman through the delivery of her baby, a death doula provides emotional support and acts an advocate for the person who is dying.
Sasser suggested preparing an advance directive that states treatment preferences. In addition, she said, it might be helpful to prepare a playlist that can be played at the end of life.
“What would you like to hear even as you’re going out?” asked Sasser.
Pets must also be considered when making end-of-life preparations, she said.
“Our web of relationships includes nonhuman beings,” Sasser added.
Some plans that must be made — like what will happen to pets — may be pragmatic, but those plans are based on feelings, on what the person wants, Sasser said.
She urged the participants to continue thinking about what they hoped for at the time of their deaths.
“Ask what that means, what is doable and what still needs to be put into place, and what conversation you still must have,” she said.