Talking about dying

Laurie Leonard

Laurie Leonard

About a year ago, Carol Robin and Jill Dorsi realized that they wanted to offer people an opportunity to talk more deeply about dying. “Jill and I both have a longstanding background in teaching and facilitating groups, and are highly trained in offering people a really safe space in which to talk,” says Robin, adding their experience to draw upon over 30 years of clinical work, teaching and facilitating groups. Dorsi is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has worked with individuals challenged by homelessness, physical and intellectual disabilities, and behavioral health issues. Dr. Robin is a holistic Chiropractor, Certified Clinical Nutritionist, Energy healing and Energy Psychology practitioner, and the former President of Breast Cancer Options.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Somebody’s gotta do this. We can do this.”

They created Talk About Dying and the third of their projected monthly series of workshops and events — “Aid in Dying in New York: Your Right to Choose” — will be held 2 p.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, March 26 at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Sawkill Road in Kingston. Laurie Leonard, LMSW, associate director of End of Life Choices NY is the featured speaker, and she will present various aspects of the legal and legislative issues related to advances in medical technology and dying in New York State. The remainder of the three-hour event will be devoted to Robin and Dorsi, and to an open discussion of the practical, emotional and spiritual aspects of dying.


“There is legislation pending here in New York State right now and a lawsuit that Laurie will talk about,” says Robin. “Then, we’ll open up to a discussion about how people feel about aid in dying.” Two previous Talk About Dying gatherings focused on talking and on healthcare proxies and how to choose the right person to speak for you.

Robin says there are a couple of major reasons why people find it so difficult to talk about death, and the first is that we’re more removed from dying than people were in earlier generations. “People used to die at home, they saw birth and death all the time. Children saw their grandparents dying, it was a part of life,” says Robin. But now, with medical technology, new medications, hospitals and the rise of the nursing home model for elder care, people have become very separated from death. It’s hard to conceive of, it’s something we’re afraid of, and we’re even ashamed of it.

“Medical students are taught to fight death, and we use terms like cheat, conquer and win over, when we refer to death. When someone dies, we say ‘we lost a patient.’ It’s a whole vocabulary. There’s a new book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, [by Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston] and the author talks about medical training programs. We’re not taught to deal with dying, and in fact are taught to prevent it at any cost. Dying has become a failure — not, ‘it’s OK, let’s go through the dying process now,’ but as a failure.”


Safe space to talk

With more advances in medicine than ever before, we’re prolonging dying rather than extending life and, Robin, like many of us, has felt the painful reality of this perspective. Her grandmother had been very ill for a long time and had finally died. “My mother was standing there, saying ‘what a blessing’ when the hospital resident came in and said ‘we have to resuscitate!’ My mother was so angry over that, told them to get out.” And, her mother’s 93-year old husband, long ago diagnosed with congestive heart failure, had been taking medication for many years. He got an infection and they wanted to give him antibiotics but he didn’t want them. “Why was he still getting all this medication? He really wanted to die, but the medications were keeping him going. This is a big issue, (and people are enduring) a much less clean and comfortable death. Should we turn the pacemaker off? No one wants to talk about that.”

Robin says the people she has met through Talk About Dying feel relieved to talk about death. “We create a safe space and people open up and say things they may never have said to anyone else before. It’s welcoming and supportive, non-judgmental and totally confidential. If people have had a good life, if they loved and feel loved, there’s loss when death occurs, of course, but it shouldn’t be a terrible, tragic thing. Jill and I are really committed to creating a space for people to talk about dying. We’re good, experienced facilitators, and our community really needs this.”

“People are dying more poorly because they’re being kept alive. Doctors don’t want to let them go, and are trained to consider it their failure when someone dies.”

Leonard’s presentation will focus on why dying is very different today than it was a century ago, and alternatives to aid in dying that can improve chances of a peaceful death. She will also examine the current status of proposed NYS legislation to legalize aid in dying and an active NYS lawsuit filed in an attempt to legalize aid in dying. A question and answer period and group discussion will follow.


Aid in Dying in New York: Your Right to Choose with Laurie Leonard, Saturday, March 26, 2-5 p.m., free admission, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills, 320 Sawkill Road, Kingston; pre-registration is requested as space is limited,