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Talking Death in Hartland

Hartland — Marie Kirn wants to talk about death.

“It’s so important,” said Kirn, 78, of Hartland. “This is something facing all of us and we can do it well. To me, the first step is talking about it.”

Throughout November, Kirn is helping to organize a series of conversations around questions about the end of life. The series, which is organized by the nonprofit Aging in Hartland, will begin Nov. 4 with a “death cafe” and cover topics every week thereafter, including planning for the end of life (Nov. 13), Vermont’s new physician “aid-in-dying” law (Nov. 19) and advance directives (Nov. 25).

The death cafe idea is imported from Europe, where people come together to drink tea, eat cake and talk about dying.

Death Cafe is now an established “social franchise” that has spread across the globe, according to DeathCafe.com, with about 300 cafes in Europe, North America and Australasia involving 3,000 participants.

They don’t have to be morbid affairs, Kirn said. Quite the contrary. She hopes the one in Hartland will be a fun way to explore a topic that is rarely discussed with honesty and depth.

The cafe isn’t group therapy, she said, but rather an open conversation. Beyond a few ground rules — respect other people’s beliefs, no proselytizing — participants are encouraged to let the discussion flow naturally. And it doesn’t take much, usually, to get people talking, Kirn said.

“You introduce even a question like what’s the first death you remember, and it takes off,” Kirn said.

As the retired director of a hospice program, Kirn has considered end-of-life care for many decades, and in very practical terms. Among the issues Kirn feels are important to consider are creating advance directives.

Advance directives are instructions on how to care for a patient who is no longer able to communicate decisions on his own. Similar to “living wills,” advance directives involve questions that literally relate to life and death: Under what conditions should the patient be kept alive? Does she want to have life-support treatment? What should the doctor do if the patient sustains permanent and severe brain damage?

Kirn’s dream is to have people complete an advance directive upon receiving their driver’s license, and then update it throughout their lives.

“I think it’s a wonderful way to address the reality of life and death,” she said. “It’s right there in your hands.”

Advance directives will conclude the series, which was scheduled for November, which has become known as “hospice and palliative care month.” All sessions will begin at 4 p.m. in the Hartland Public Library Community Room.

Kirn said she has no idea how many people the series will attract, but hopes people come prepared to have honest and open conversations. And, at least for the first week, they should be prepared to eat cake.

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.

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