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From Friday September 21, through to Sunday Sept 23, 2018, Toronto will be host to the International Death Symposium. Bringing together experts across a diverse field, the goal of this public symposium is to learn, experience and reconcile our relationship and understanding of life and death. The guest speakers, teachers and educators include Dr. BJ Miller, Caitlin Doughty, Kevin Toolis, Stephen Jenkinson, Jeremie Saunders, and much more!
We spoke with Sun Drews and Ramona Bolton to know more about the symposium, and find out what you can expect from the 3 day event.
Tell us about your background and what influenced you to organize the International Death Symposium?
Sun Drews - I've been a funeral director for over 10 years and feel so privileged to have shared in the story of so many lives. After making thousands of funeral arrangements I found myself questioning the status quo and our larger system that seemed to be failing people at the end of their lives. I've since pursued education and training as a death doula and mediator to support individuals and communities navigate conflict that arises around dying and death.
I believe that education, conversation and the power of community-driven and personal rituals are key to changing the experience we have around death. I would love to see us move away from the idea of death as a failure, to a place where it is understood and accepted as a perfectly natural event in all of our lives.
Ramona Bolton – At a young age I started volunteering at a longterm care facility/hospital in Scarborough - I was 12, a candy striper, sent to the palliative care unit on my first day. A month into my volunteering, I showed up to take ‘Mary’ for her smoke break and then chapel visit. When I approached her room – I noticed the bed was made, everything seemed so sterile, no sign of life, or death. Mary was no longer there. No one prepared me, asked if I was okay. They just sent me to the next room to start visiting a new patient. This was my first understanding of how death was done in mainstream society and not done well. Fortunately, I had a father that believed children should learn about death, attend funerals, ask questions about the dead... He would sit his kids down, let us know when someone died, and allow us to ask questions. I was able to go up to the casket and look at the person, say goodbye. My dad reminded us to be very respectful, but allowed the questions, so there wasn’t a fear of death. I grew up knowing it was a part of life.
I think these early experiences drove me to open ITM over a decade ago, as a community hub for living & dying well programs and a forum for public gatherings. Witnessing the need for better end of life care, we developed the Contemplative End of life Program 10 years ago – Canada’s first contemplative end of life care training program for both professionals and laypersons to learn how to better care for our dying, dead and bereaved.
Why did you create the symposium?
It’s not just for the physician or researcher, but for the mom who feels alone in caring for her dying child, the elder who is seeking creative ways to build his legacy, the curious couple exploring sustainable burial options. We want all these communities to gather - connect, exchange resources and be inspired to change how we currently care for our ill, dying, and bereaved. And in so doing – transform how we are living today.
The symposium is intended to have a wide appeal. We wanted voices and experiences that span the medical, arts, and spiritual communities. We believe these are all necessary ingredients in living and dying well.
We want to break the taboo around death. We learned early on from numerous cultures around the world that the more we understand that death and life are intimately connected – interwoven, dependent upon each other – the more fulfilling, meaningful, and relationship centred life can be. This was what inspired our theme – Life, Death ~ Reconciled.
What can attendees expect during the event?
It's a jam-packed three days!
Instead of hosting a single keynote, we decided to bring in many of the top leaders and visionaries in end of life care to be a part of this inaugural death symposium.
We’ve planned engaging educational experiences where attendees will interact with the movers and shakers in the deathcare movement. The three days are filled with inspiring talks, provocative discussions and informative panels. They’ll have opportunities to participate in demonstrations and connect with industry wide resources.
Everything from how to care for your loved ones at home, planning a home funeral, how to shroud in a variety of traditions, mindfulness techniques for dealing with grief, how to develop compassionate end of life care for marginalized communities, cultural approaches to dying, death, grief, how we can make ‘dying well’ in hospitals, homes, longterm care facilities – a reality.
Attendees will have an opportunity to connect with a community of caregivers, medical practitioners, funeral industry personnel, and so many others who are instrumental in changing how we live, die and care for our dying.
We're in one of the most multicultural cities in the world and it’s really important to us that the event embodies Toronto's diversity. It’s also essential for us to have our First Nations teachings about life, death, and afterlife highlighted at the symposium.
What we really want is to give people a taste of how full life can be and how meaningful our relationships are, with each other, with our environment, when we include an awareness of our mortality.
What do you hope attendees will come away with by the end of the symposium?
There are really three things we’re hoping people get from the symposium - education, connection and inspiration.
It’s meant to be an educational experience - so one of our goals is for attendees to come away with practical tools, know-how and current, relevant information on how to do dying and death differently, and how to do it well. Everything from what questions they ask their physicians upon being diagnosed with a terminal illnesses, questions or requests they have of their funeral directors, to the latest approaches/programs that are at the forefront of ‘good’ end of life care.
Connection - we’ve heard from so many people about how alone they’ve felt in caring for their loved ones and in contemplating their own death. We really hope this event (and others like it) help change that. Growing community is a remedy for isolation, and real change happens when people unite with a shared vision.
Being familiar with our speaker’s personal and professional stories, we know our attendees will leave feeling inspired. Inspired to make changes in their own families and lives, in their communities, hospitals, hospices, at a political level…the possibilities for real change are endless.
We believe and have witnessed the difference it makes when people come together-connect in person. We spend so much time in online conversations, social media outlets, listening to podcasts, reading - but when you bring together people who are curious and passionate, face-to-face - and then sparked by an amazing experience...it’s powerful and transformative.
The presenters line up is quite diverse. How did you decide which speakers to invite?
For this first symposium it was easy to choose…we wanted our event to be different from the regular palliative care conferences that focus on research and medical approaches to end of life care.
Our presenters are visionaries - pioneers in end of life care. Each speaker has been touched and changed by death and suffering in some way. They’ve used their own lived experiences to transform how others are cared for. There is something about sitting with a person, hearing their stories and learning with them, much different than simply reading their books, or listening to a podcast. Just as death requires us to show up, be present and be in relationship - we wanted our attendees to have an experience of these teachers and the teachings they carry.
The truth is, we thought about who we would want to meet - who has impacted our own lives and understandings of living and dying - and that’s who we invited to Toronto!
Our presenters are the real deal - they live their teachings. And they are leading the movement for change in how we live and die.
With politicians, healthcare providers and social change-makers among some of the guests and speakers attending- is there hope or a plan for direct action?
We’re trying to connect the individuals who will take action within their own communities of practice - death doulas, home funeral guides, palliative and hospice care workers, medical teams, grief and bereavement counsellors. The symposium is a place for knowledge sharing - creating cross-professional and experiential connections. By empowering people with knowledge, giving them an experience of what is possible, and igniting passion - enormous change can happen.
The government has recognized that we need to do death care differently, that people want to die at home. Let’s make it possible.
Part of that action starts with creating an outlet for everyone’s voice to be heard. People are speaking, and we need to respond. Meeting the needs of the dying, means creating choice, support for dying at home, and options that don’t leave people with a financial burden.
The symposium will jolt people on a personal level…changing how they feel about their own deaths and inspiring changes in their lives today.
And then encouraging action on a community level – how we can die at home, how to create the resources to care for our dying, explore options for how our government will spend the money they have committed to palliative and end of life care services.
What are your views on the future of deathcare and death awareness in Canada?
Death is one of the most sacred, important times in our life, which every single person will experience, and yet we have such a fear around exploring and talking about it. Familiarity with death through open conversation and education - we’re seeing more books, documentaries, podcasts. It’s great! The reality is we’re all going to die and now there’s a movement not just to remind us of it, but to show how we can live a better life by acknowledging that.
We have professionalized birthing and dying. But, we know how to die, as we know how to give birth. And now it’s almost like we’re giving people permission to die again. Part of this movement is to allow people to care for their dying. We’re hoping to see renewed openness to working together. Creating teams that include the dying person, medical professionals, family caregivers as well as other supports within their circle of care (death doulas, members of their spiritual community, elders, counsellors,...) Death is not just a medical procedure. Death doulas (much like birth doulas!) still have a long way to go. But it’s becoming more common to hear people say they have a midwife or doula.
Most cultures around the world have an understanding of dying and death that permeates through their every day lives, they hold a place for death and understand death’s place in life. In North America, it almost feels like we have a mental health condition around death as taboo. Like we’re living, denying reality. We’re all suffering from a shared condition of death-denial. This is an anti-aging, anti-death society that we’re in. We love to use strong words like that. You look outside and everything is about living in a certain way. Nothing is about dying.
We see a future with more public displays of grief and death, more memorials, death conversations – cafes, salons even taking place in hospitals, schools, children not being shunned from asking questions about dying and death and a community approach to caring for our loved ones. More acknowledgement. Even in the last decade, public acknowledgement of death has changed immensely.
Once we invite death to the table – our entire lives will change. Once life and death are reconciled.