On a warm evening in late August, Betsy Trapasso, a 51-year-old former hospice social worker, gathered seven friends at a seafood restaurant in Topanga, Calif., for an unlikely purpose. She wanted to talk about death.
Over the course of the three-hour meal, with the Santa Monica Mountains as a backdrop, the friends discussed losing loved ones, the reasons why people find it so difficult to discuss death and dying, and how they wanted their own lives to end.
One dinner guest had recently become the caregiver for an elderly neighbor. When that neighbor had to be admitted to the hospital, Trapasso’s friend didn’t know if the person had made any decisions about whether to be kept on life support, which prompted much soul-searching. “My friend began thinking about what he wanted when his own time came,” Trapasso recalls.
Trapasso and her friends aren’t alone when it comes to discussing end-of-life issues in the open—more and more people across the country are asking each other similar questions. How much medical intervention do I want to keep me alive? Can I afford long-term medical care? Have I made sure that my family won’t be financially burdened by my death? The fact that Americans are living longer than ever before, not to mention that many lack the savings to sustain a long retirement—let alone pricey long-term care—makes it more important than ever to pose these questions.
And, for many people these days, one effective way to share their very personal end-of-life decisions and desires with friends and family is to host “death dinners.” The hope is that gathering over a meal will make discussing the topic of dying a little more palatable, while also sparing loved ones from fighting over financial and medical issues down the road.
“Financial issues at end of life cause so many problems and concerns for people,” says Trapasso, who now works as an end-of-life guide. “I have seen people struggle with whether to leave money for their kids or do medical treatments. I’ve had men ask me if it was cheaper for them to just die, so their wives wouldn’t lose the house. It astonished me.”
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