Taking on a Tough Topic with Courageous Conversations

The Gilda’s Club location in Lowell will be hosting an event titled Courageous Conversations on June 5 from 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm.  The community is invited to take part in hearing a panel discuss the importance of talking with family and loved ones regarding end of life decisions.  While the conversations are not easy, discussion is important and even helpful for all those involved.

A panel composed of Dr. Dave Sharp, Sue Schroder, Jon Beckett, Carol Robinson and Molly Keating will discuss their personal and professional experiences when it comes to having these conversations.  These talks are not about what treatment to seek or when and how to enter Hospice care, but how to have your voice be heard and how to listen to others when it comes to the tough topic of how to get the most life out of death.  

Getting Conversational
Many of those who are helped through programs offered by Gilda’s Club are faced with making decisions regarding when to end cancer treatment.  Even those who are able to fight and beat cancer have a different outlook on life after realizing a horrible disease could end in death. It’s not easy to think about your own death.  It can be even harder to discuss death with family and friends. Yet these conversations are important.

The idea behind Courageous Conversations came from a friendship and talks between Sister Sue Tracy, who passed away nearly two years ago from cancer, and Sue Schroder, a former journalist with the Grand Rapids Press and Mlive and cancer survivor.  Sister Sue was the first ever recipient of the Spirit Award in November 2015. This award is given to an individual “who has supported Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids through openly sharing our mission of cancer and grief support with his or her friends and colleagues, advocating for our organization with other leaders in the community, and doing so with the light-heartedness and laughter that embodied our namesake Gilda Radner” according to the Gilda’s Club website.  Sister Sue, who was born about the same time as Gilda Radner, is known to have joked about going to Marywood, working in holistic health services, while Radner went to Hollywood. Sister Sue also served as chaplain at Spectrum Health.

All too familiar with cancer, Sister Sue battled the “dreaded C word” six times.  Schroder, diagnosed with follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2009 has been in remission since fall of 2010.  The two women bonded over their conversations about life, death, cancer, and how these three things meshed together.  It was through these talks the women discovered the importance of not only thinking about their own death process, but how they wanted to go out.  More importantly, they talked about how to have these conversations with others.

Panelist Carol Robinson is a certified hospice & palliative care nurse and the Community Coordinator with Making Choices Michigan.  This non-profit organization, focuses on “helping people determine their end-of-life preferences, documenting those preferences in an advance directive” according to their website.  When speaking about the importance of discussing end of life arrangements, Robinson says, “Research shows that without a meaningful conversation, patient advocates suffer more anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic distress six months after a person’s death.”  Her hope is to bring information and awareness to Courageous Conversations. “The reason is relatively simple. The patient advocate had to act on what they thought the person wanted, not what they knew the person wanted. This can lead to self-doubt.” Individuals 18 and older can put their wishes into writing and this document can be changed over time if needed.

Gilda’s Club locations in Lowell and Grand Rapids offer programming for those dealing with cancer and grief. The entrance to the Grand Rapids location is captured here.

Finding the Courage
Death isn’t a topic of conversation one typically engages in on a regular basis.  Even when faced with the ultimate end, death can be an icky conversation for many.  It’s like a bug you find in your home, want to quickly squish, get rid of, and not think about again.  But it’s not that simple. Death isn’t something easily wrapped up in a tissue and flushed down the toilet.  It can be refreshing to take that bug and put it outside to go about life with the understanding of not returning indoors.  Breaking the stigma surrounding having these tough talks can be accomplished. Once dialog is started, it becomes easier and feels more comfortable.

Schroder is one of the panelists involved with Gilda’s Club’s Courageous Conversations.  She believes having these conversations about death when living, with the living, are important.  And sooner rather than later. It’s better to talk about death, personal wishes, fears, and more during a positive moment of living.  “We hope to make a difficult thing a little easier.” says Schroder of Courageous Conversations. Sometimes taking steps out of one’s comfort zone is the only way to get comfortable.  Schroder’s blog Cope with Hope is inspired by her friend Sister Sue and aims to share real-life stories which help, encourage, and inspire those dealing with or who have dealt with cancer.  She also works with Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids to bring Member Mondays the first Monday of each month, where participants are encouraged to share stories about how to get through tough times.  

Courageous Conversations strives to help people discuss end of life wishes.  Not how and when to stop medical care, but whether an individual wants to be buried or cremated as one example.  For some it means knowing how a memorial service will be held or if one happens at all. These conversations can be as detailed or vague as an individual would like and can change from conversation to conversation.  Having these discussions can help strengthen relationships over time and make the topic of death more real and tangible. “I have learned that the conversation is much more rich and less stressful if people decide, BEFORE they get sick, to have a conversation with their loved ones and a designated patient advocate(s) about what gives their life meaning.” says Robinson of her experience with Making Choices Michigan.  

Whenever the end comes, if wishes are known and even some plans in place, those final days, weeks, and months can consist of quality time making lasting memories rather than talking about and even fighting over final wishes during a time that’s emotional enough to begin with.  Through tears, laughter, and bonding, having courage to start the conversation and continue it over time is important to experience.

A Hospice Medical Physician, a Hospice Nurse, a Spiritual Director, and a Cancer Survivor Start a Conversation…
The lineup may sound a bit like the start of a joke, but that’s okay.  Laughter is an important component of Gilda’s Club programming as this group discusses how to tackle the tough topic of wishes when it comes to death.  There are sure to be some smiles and chuckles throughout the evening. Planning for death is just as important as planning for various milestones in life and humor can be part of the process.  

If you’re unable to attend the event or would like additional information on how to have this kind of conversation, Making Choices Michigan has a resource page providing helpful information.  They can also be contacted to help individuals think about end of life wishes and how to communicate these thoughts with family members, free of charge.  

Whether death is imminent or you want to learn how to broach the subject of preparing for final wishes, all are welcome to attend the event on June 5 from 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm at Gilda’s Club’s Lowell location at 314 S. Hudson Street.  

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.