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Death matters

Encouraging conversations about dying and death

Campus and Community

By Janet Harron

In Western culture, we tend to avoid thinking about dying and death.

In fact, most Canadians have not talked with family and friends about end-of-life decisions.

Part of the process

A religious studies professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences is hoping to encourage conversations about dying and death through two upcoming initiatives on Memorial’s St. John’s campus.

“What we are learning from professionals working in palliative care is that death avoidance or death denial leads to certain problems in organizing and planning for end of life care,” said Dr. Barry Stephenson, who became involved in the project with his colleagues at Saint Elizabeth, Canada’s largest not-for-profit health-care provider, due to his background in ritual studies.

“Discussions about funerals are about planning for end-of-life, but are also part of the process of caring for the dying and their loved ones,” said Dr. Stephenson.

The Reflection Room
Photo: Submitted

As part of a collaboration with researchers at Saint Elizabeth, he has partnered on the Reflection Room, an innovative research effort that uses the power of participatory art, shared storytelling and science to gently inspire reflection and conversations and to support advance care planning.

To date, Reflection Rooms have been installed in 28 locations across Canada and will be open to the public in St. John’s from Wednesday Sept. 27, to Friday, Sept. 29, in the Loft in the University Centre during regular hours.

Reflection Room on St. John’s campus

People are invited to come into the Reflection Room, read stories that others have written about their experiences with dying and death and perhaps even write a story of their own.

“Human beings are storytellers,” said Karen Oikonen, a Saint Elizabeth researcher.

“We are trying to create an artful, comfortable space for people to approach the idea of the last days of our lives by reading the stories of others. Some of the stories that have been shared elsewhere are sad, certainly, and many are inspiring, giving glimpses into the things that we could all be doing now, before we are facing a serious turn toward our own death or someone we love.”

“This is an intriguing approach to moving our society from death-denying to death-discussing and builds on our endeavours to increase people’s willingness to talk,” said Dr. Stephenson. “We are delighted to welcome the Reflection Room to St. John’s and hope people take the opportunity to visit.”

A group of people play Hello.
Photo: Submitted

In conjunction with the Reflection Room there will be an opportunity to participate in Hello, a conversation game about living and dying.

The game will be facilitated by Ms. Oikonen and fellow researcher Paul Holyoke and will take place on Thursday, Sept. 28, in The Landing from 7-9 p.m. Those interested in registering to play can visit here.

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