MSc students Kelly Oberle and Jennifer Rigal discuss the Death over Dinner event they organised online in March 2021.
We are two students on the MSc in End of Life Studies Programme at the University of Glasgow, who have been friends for years. In our first course, The Ageing and Dying Continuum, we have been introduced to the idea of Death over Dinner, which is an initiative designed to foster informal discussions about end-of-life in a positive and interactive manner. We were intrigued and thought the Death Over Dinner platform could be a useful means to explore our mutual interest in end of life issues with our classmates who are located around the world.
Prior to the pandemic, a Death over Dinner would generally be an in-person event, set around a dining table with a meal shared. The Death over Dinner website provides an outline for hosting an event, and from this we created a script and timeline for the evening, including notifying our classmates in advance what they could do to prepare. We included links to the three ‘homework’ pieces for people to listen to or watch for further discussion: A podcast of Dr. Atul Gawande ‘Making end of life more humane’ (2010); aTEDx talk with Dr. Lucy Kalanithi ‘What makes life worth living’ (2016), and the Netflix documentary “End Game” (Miller, 2018). We also asked the participants to bring a candle and/or a glass of wine to be used to honour an important person in their lives who had died. We chose not to include food in our virtual dinner as we thought it would detract from the conversation.
Given the pandemic, and the different time zones for many of our student cohort, we met for a virtual Death over Dinner in early March. Seven of us joined from five countries in four time zones. We commenced the evening with a welcome to our participants, a land acknowledgment (both hosts live on unceded Indigenous territory in British Columbia, Canada), and an introduction to the format of the evening. We went around the virtual table and each person had the opportunity to honour their important person. We allowed 15 minutes for the introduction segment and were pleasantly surprised to find we had underestimated by 100%! It was then easy to move the conversation to the materials we had individually reviewed, as the preparation work had been well received by the group.
We found it very interesting that although we had been given five prepared questions from the Death over Dinner template, we only addressed one of them. Instead, the conversation flowed in many directions, and at times was emotional. We were delighted by the enthusiasm and full participation of our classmates. A particularly vibrant discussion centered around what a person with advanced dementia may or may not understand about their own imminent end of life. This prepared us for a more detailed discussion of dementia in week 10 of our current course, ‘The Continuum of Ageing and Dying’. We all agreed that we would like to continue this particular conversation further.
Subsequent to the event we received feedback from all participants. This included appreciation for the structure of the meeting, for the personal stories that helped us better understand our classmates, and for how relevant it was to our current course of study in the End of Life Studies MSc program. The consensus was that the event was a success! Everyone expressed interest in organizing another similar event, hopefully at least for some of us in person. We left the meeting thrilled at having created and shared in a unique experience. We believe this virtual format was ideal for our purposes as it allowed for us to discuss such a personal and sensitive subject from the safety of our own homes.
Finally, it is important to note that our event was designed by students for students who all are conversant on this topic. We would be interested in hosting another Death over Dinner event using the same format, but with individuals outside of our program and compare the outcomes.
Kelly Oberle, from Vancouver Canada, is a Chartered Professional Accountant, an End of Life Doula, a certified yoga instructor and a student in the End of Life Studies MSc program at the University of Glasgow.
Jennifer Rigal is a technical recruiter, an End of Life Doula and a student in the End of Life Studies MSc program at the University of Glasgow. Jennifer lives in Vancouver, Canada.
Hebb, M. 2019. Death over Dinner. [viewed 23rd February 2021]. Available at: deathoverdinner.org
Gawande, A. 2010. Make End of Life More Humane. NPR. [viewed 23rd February 2021]. Available from: https://www.npr.org/2010/07/29/128828629/dr-atul-gawande-make-end-of-life-more-humane
Kalanithi, L., 2016. What makes life worth living in the face of death. TedMed. [viewed 23 February 2021]. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/lucy_kalanithi_what_makes_life_worth_living_in_the_face_of_death?language=en
Miller, B.J., 2018. End Game. Netflix. [viewed 23 February 2021]. Available from: https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80210691