OCEAN PARK — We face death every day.
In the newspaper. On television. Death from a thousand different causes, linked to studies that tell us the best ways to avoid our fate, to put it off for 20 more years, a few weeks, even days.
Often, in the desire to keep it at arm’s length, death goes unmentioned until the incidence of disease or advancing age brings the inevitable squarely to the forefront.
Or it just happens, suddenly and without warning, leaving family and friends to deal with the emotional and legal aftermath.
It bothered Laurel Lewis, a registered nurse who, in her capacity at Hospice Partners of Southern California, deals with death upfront and personal every day.
“I was concerned that people were uncomfortable talking about it,” she said. “Why can’t it be more like this, a regular conversation about death in a non-stressed out environment.”
Last Sunday, Lewis held her 16th Death and Dying Dinner at the Santa Monica Hospice location on Ocean Park Boulevard, a potluck affair served up with a side of mortality.
A dozen people attended, seated at a long table, covered in white linen, fine china and silverware worthy of Emily Post.
The room was softly lit with flickering electric candles, and a magnificent spread of largely homemade foods in casseroles and artistic serving trays covered all surfaces of the table.
After each assisted in passing food counterclockwise around the table, the discussion commenced, a loosely-guided conversation exploring whatever participants choose to bring to the table that day.
Suicide became the focus of one meal, sudden death another, Lewis said.
“It’s about bringing death and dying to the dinner table,” she said.
As with so many things in popular culture, the Death and Dying Dinner Party began with Oprah Winfrey.
The media maven put out a call to the general public to give her ideas for shows to populate her new network, OWN.
Lewis had returned home after a day of nursing feeling enlightened by an experience with a large family finding reconciliation with a dying loved one.
She opened her laptop and captured a video she later submitted to the network about this idea she’d been mulling about a venue where people could speak about one of the most difficult topics in our culture: Death.
“It’s just me, talking about this idea of death and dying in America, and people’s reluctance to look at it,” Lewis said.
Oprah never called, but Lewis, inspired by the concept, decided to start it up anyway.
“I hadn’t considered starting where I was,” Lewis said. “I don’t need Oprah to back me in hosting a dinner party.”
The first Death and Dying Dinner took place in the home of an administrator. The food was catered by friends, and servers were hired.
Over the course of a year and a half, the concept of the dinner evolved into a community-sourced offering with people feeding others and taking inspiration from their food, their ideas and their words.
“First, I had a lot of my friends supporting me in this work. Now there are people coming I don’t know,” Lewis said.
People like Doug Binzak, a current hospice volunteer and first-time attendee of the Death and Dying Dinner, and Christopher King, a five-time veteran of the dinners.
Binzak, a former entertainment executive taking classes to become an ordained minister at the Chaplaincy Institute for Arts & Interfaith Ministries in Berkeley, Calif., wasn’t sure what to expect when he walked into the conference room at the hospice on Sunday.
He knows the place as the location of stapling and collating documents, not intimate conversations over flickering pseudo-candlelight.
“I’m the type of person who doesn’t usually pay attention to the paintings on the wall,” Binzak said. “The meal was served on fine china, the lighting, candles and the food was so good. That really far exceeded my expectations. It helped set the mood.”
Mood is critical to a gathering of strangers discussing things that most people avoid talking about with their dearest friends and family members. So were the rules with which Lewis prefaced the dinner.
First and foremost, confidentiality. The night began with each attendee standing to acknowledge their acceptance of that rule to create a space safe enough to express whatever ideas came to mind.
People were also asked not to talk over other speakers, to refrain from giving advice unless specifically asked and to avoid treating the evening as “therapy.”
The diversity of attendees and the candidness with which they approach the meal brings up a host of topics and opinions that otherwise don’t get voiced in polite society.
That’s why King keeps showing up.
“What I get out if it most is that my experience is different,” King said. “I’m going to keep going until there’s redundanc[y]. Oh this is like the third dinner, or this is like the last. So far, and being at five of them, none of them have been the same.”
If talking about death and dying doesn’t seem like a fun or useful way to spend your Sunday night, Jeannette Meyer would beg to differ.
“It’s something we do wish people would think more about,” said Meyer, the clinical nurse specialist for palliative care at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center.
Giving thought to the inevitability of death may be difficult, but a frank conversation now saves pain later as family members struggle to decide what to do in the final moments of a person’s life.
It’s critical to let your family know through conversation and through advance directive forms what you want out of care, and when they should let you go, Meyer said.
“I have sat both of my children down and had the discussion with them about what is most important and what quality of life I would tolerate,” Meyer said. “Have the discussions early, now, while you’re healthy … It’s the greatest gift you can give them.”
And having a comfort level with death, like that fostered by the dinners, certainly makes that conversation easier.
“Sometimes to have a safe space that you can share and have discussions with like-minded individuals in a supportive atmosphere is important,” Meyer said.
For more information about the dinners, visit www.hospicepartnerssc.org