If the two certainties in life are death and taxes, a close third is that no one wants to discuss either of them over dinner.
WGN-TV reporter Randi Belisomo is trying to change that — the death part, anyway.
Her husband, Chicago journalist Carlos Hernandez Gomez, died from colon cancer in 2010, and although the couple knew Hernandez Gomez’s cancer was incurable, they never discussed what to do if he had to be put on life support. When faced with that reality, Belisomo struggled to make the right decision.
She has spent the years since his death encouraging people to discuss end-of-life decisions while their loved ones are still alive and lucid. Along with Northwestern Memorial Hospital oncologist Mary Mulcahy, who treated Belisomo’s husband, she launched Life Matters Media, an initiative that offers resources and information to approach dying with dignity and a strategy.
“We come to this from a point of failure,” Belisomo told me. “Death was the elephant in the room that was never addressed, and it left me just shocked. I don’t regret any decisions that were made, but it would have been so much easier if we heard from him what he really wanted.”
On Saturday night, Belisomo will host a “death over dinner” event at Barba Yianni Greek restaurant in Lincoln Square, where people can gather to ask questions and swap stories about approaching their final days.
If you knew you were going to die in a month, what would you do? How can you plan ahead, so you can be present and surrounded by your loved ones when you’re dying? How do you want your life to end?
“End-of-life has become so medicated and such a series of interventions,” Belisomo said. “We talk about what’s the ideal scenario and how to support the wishes of those that you care about.”
The dinner series is part of a national effort spearheaded by The Conversation Project andDeath Over Dinner, two nonprofits made up of wellness and medical experts who guide people toward end-of-life discussions.
“Everyone is reluctant to start the conversation,” said Ellen Goodman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who co-founded The Conversation Project. “Middle-age children may be reluctant to have the conversation with their parents because they don’t want to suggest their parents are going to die. Elderly parents may be reluctant because they don’t want to worry their children.”
The conversations, though, become a gift — to both parties, she said. The person dying knows his or her wishes have been heard and will be respected. The survivors know what their loved one wanted and didn’t want.
“There are these dynamics of reluctance,” Goodman said. “Because you’re letting death in the room.”
She experienced it firsthand, and she meets countless others who have too — from all generations and age ranges.
“My mom and I were people who talked about everything, except one thing: how she wanted to live at the end of her life,” Goodman said. “What I found to be true is when I tell people that, half a beat passes, and out pours a similar story.”
Some of those stories will be shared Saturday, when Belisomo will help her fellow diners honor loved ones they’ve lost and talk about their own wishes. This will be her fourth such event.
“People come alone who just want to explore the topic and learn how to talk about it in their own family,” she said. “We have couples who come. People talk about their own experiences. I hear these stories over and over again, and it’s not going away.
“The fact is we’re going to have to make decisions on other people’s behalf,” she continued. “And that’s a heck of a lot easier if you know the values and goals of that person.”
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