Thinking Ahead: Talking about death won't kill you

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Angela Mennitto describes herself as a death midwife. She is not afraid of death the same way that most people are, she does not find it a taboo subject to talk abouat in the least. In fact, she encourages it. For several years now Mennitto has hosted local Death Cafes, monthly gatherings that are meant to encourage people to discuss whatever is on their mind when it comes to death. It’s not therapy, it’s not a support group, it’s just people gathering to talk about a subject that is often frowned upon in everyday society despite the fact that it’s inevitable and could be made a little easier for everyone involved if there was just a little planning.


For several years now Mennitto has collected a local group of people who are impacted, through work or life, by the process of death. Together they put on the first local education event at The Space at Greenstar with representatives from palliative care, hospice care, Funeral Consumers Alliance of the Finger Lakes, and Greensprings Natural Burial, among others. Despite being the first year, and despite being scheduled the same weekend as Wizarding Weekend, the event saw about 50 people walk through its doors. This year, Mennitto is hosting the event again and would be happy to see 50 more people attend.


On Saturday, Nov. 3, Talking About Death Won’t Kill You will take over the Space at Greenstar once again from 2 to 4 p.m. Topics on display will include: health care proxies and living wills, accessing palliative care, hospice care, wills and trusts, organ donation, funeral planning, green burial, and more. Mennitto will greet you at the door (she wanted to dress as the Grim Reaper but was told that might be too much) with a folder full of the basic information at each table, so even if participants don’t get a chance to stop at each booth they will have some information and a website to go find more.


Mennitto has long found herself drawn to the study of death, but it wasn’t until her mother was dying that she found a calling in death care. The Hospicare volunteers that worked with her mother inspired her to get involved.


“My passion is working with folks around death and dying,” Mennitto said. “Both very personally with people who are dying and with people who want to plan for that eventuality for themselves or for their families.”


She sees the job of Hospicare workers and volunteers as just being present, being what a family needs. After her mother died Mennitto became a Hospicare volunteer herself. Now, she has started phased retirement from her job at Cornell University in order to more fully commit herself to her death midwife work. She has already used her skills as a web developer to create her own website, the artofdyingwell.com.


She and her group of like-minded death aficionados called the Community Advanced Care Planning Group, have already put together some helpful community resources, like a PowerPoint presentation about health care proxies and living wills. She’s been asked to host workshops around this topic and is already creating some of her own.


“I’m just really glad to see that stuff happening,” Mennitto said. “I would love to do that kind of stuff. I would love to get out a little further doing it, and tailor it to the audience.”


But what all of this boils down to is the fact that humans have a finite amount of time on Earth and we should be more involved with creating the life, and death, that we want. At Hospicare, Mennito said there is a very talented harp player who often donates her time to the patients.


“She’s a very talented musician, she’s a wonderful musician – I don’t want to hear the harp playing,” Mennitto said of planning her last moments.


Why not create your own death playlist? That way you can listen to what you want to listen to and your friends and family don’t have to try to guess if you do or do not want a harp player around. When you create your own plan, your family isn’t left guessing. But making plans early can also help the people planning better understand what they want out of life.


“I’d love to do ‘Writing your own obituary.’ That one I love,” Mennitto said. “I’d like to do it with a younger group of people, you know, and it’s like ‘Oh, your obituary’s boring? You’re 40. Change it.’ That idea, you have a finite time, make the most of it.”


She would know. Although she is healthy now, Mennitto credits her passion for death planning to two things: her experience with Hospicare during her mother’s death, and a cancer diagnosis. That diagnosis, she said, was “the difference between recognizing intellectually that we are all mortal to ‘I’m going to die.’ Sounds like the same thing, it’s not the same thing.”


As for the education and outreach event at The Space, Mennitto said she is happy to continue putting it on as long as people are amenable to it. But it’s hardly all that this death midwife has up her shroud.

Thinking Ahead

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