Tackling the Tough Topic

grace and frankie on dyingI like the streaming Netflix service. It allows me to enjoy such programs as “Orange is the New Black” and “House of Cards.” Last night I watched an episode of “Grace and Frankie” which stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in the title roles. The show is in its second season and I absolutely love the way it explores the realities of aging in a comical yet poignant manner. But I was not prepared for what I saw last night.

Frankie had been asked by another friend to help her have a good death. She didn’t want to repeat the ordeal she’d been through when cancer returned and spread throughout her body. After some trepidation, Frankie agreed, but Grace found the idea of helping someone die completely against her values.

I can understand Frankie’s friend not wanting to endure more surgery, radiation, and chemo. I can also relate to Grace’s inability to participate. But most people want a good death. One that is not filled with agony or drawn out over a long period of time. Watching the show, I suddenly realized the impact of making that choice.

Nobody likes to talk about death, but dying is a universal experience. And the more we avoid talking about it, the more we set ourselves up for an unpleasant and isolated process when it doesn’t have to be that way. A recent survey of 32 research studies found that people preferred a pain-free death experience and wanted one that allowed for dignity and emotional well-being. They valued quality of life over quantity.

In recent years, some innovative options have begun spreading that bring death out of the shadows and provide comfort to those facing  their own death or grieving the loss of loved ones. One such innovation is the proliferation of death cafes. The name sounds somewhat morbid at first, but this is a movement around the world that allows strangers to share their thoughts and feelings in a safe and informal environment. Death cafes open lines of communication about dying that can be cathartic and healing. A similar program is Death over Dinner, where people discuss what they want their final days to be like, who they want to have around them, and the types of medical help they do or don’t want.

Another method being tested is a workshop that engages participants with such questions as “Before I die, I want to…” They may include tools like the GoWish game that helps people discuss end-of-life choices and explore what matters most to them. Using a deck of 36 cards that are sorted into categories of importance, a person facing death can compare their wishes with what a loved one thinks are their priorities. Typically, the game exposes how far off those expectations are and allows for correction so that more of our wishes are carried out.

Even clips from the movie “Charlotte’s Web” are used to inspire people in a workshop to think about what they want their lives to mean.

What’s the result of programs and processes like these? People feel less fearful of death while becoming clearer about what they do and don’t want. In addition, many individuals gain a new sense of purpose and adopt more healthy behaviors.

The more we are able to explore our feelings and wishes about death, the more fully we are able to engage in life. This is a conversation that everyone needs to be having. As Death over Dinner founder Michael Hebb says in his TEDmed talk, “How we end our lives is the most important conversation we don’t have.”

I applaud the producers of “Grace and Frankie” for tackling yet another significant aspect of life in such a beautiful way. Watching the characters struggle with helping a friend die on her own terms gripped me in a manner I hadn’t expected. I believe in death with dignity, but could I actually help someone have it?

Abstract ideas become concrete in a powerful way. This Netflix show, like the meetings, games, and workshops described here, help us pull our heads out of the sand so we can face death in a healthy way. As one workshop participant put it, “Looking at death has taught me how to live.”

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