The 'Wake Up to Dying Project' Brings Death Out of the Closet | Live Culture

The 'Wake Up to Dying Project' Brings Death Out of the Closet


Nina Thompson's "wake up to dying" moment came not long before she lost her father.

“All he wanted from me near the end of his life was this picture of my dog," she recalls. "He called my dog his 'grand-dog.'”

Thompson kept putting it off, expecting she'd eventually find the perfect frame for the photo and wrap it up for him as a beautiful gift. She never got the chance. Thompson's father died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 62.

“The first thing that went through my head was, Why didn’t I send that picture?” she recalls.

While Thompson can't do anything about that forever-lost opportunity, she can help others come to grips with the inevitable — and perhaps say and do those things that they, too, may have put off for another day that might never come.

Thompson is executive director of the Wake Up to Dying Project,  a national awareness and action campaign that encourages people to think and talk about dying through storytelling, art and other hands-on activities. Since September 2013, when the group incorporated, she has been working with story producer Erica Heilman (producer of the radio show/podcast Rumble Strip Vermont) to interview Vermonters and collect their stories about death and dying — more than several hundred to date.

Now, about a dozen of those stories have been compiled into a 35-minute audio experience that's part of a larger traveling exhibit. It opens this week in downtown Montpelier.
“We think this awareness campaign will help people be more prepared, practically and emotionally, for this shared human experience," Thompson explains. "We also think that if we pay more attention to the way we die, we’ll pay more attention to the way we choose to live.”

The three-day event, which begins on Thursday, July 24, in Montpelier's Christ Episcopal Church Courtyard on State Street, will include a “Before I Die” chalkboard. "Before I Die" is a global art project started by New Orleans artist Candy Chang that asks participants to finish the statement, “Before I die, I want to...” The public is invited to contribute answers to this community art project.

Also offered is a resource tent, where visitors can access information about local end-of-life care options and attend a series of discussions, with topics including “A Discussion With End of Life Care Professionals” and “Spiritual Perspectives on Death and Dying.” The nonprofit also sponsors house parties and offers other community resources about death and dying, including  hospice, alternative funerals, green burials and advance directives.

But the centerpiece of the traveling exhibit is a comfortable listening space where people can sit down and hear stories about life, death and dying from fellow Vermonters. Though the exhibit may sound like a serious downer, Thompson insists that many of the stories are touching, inspiring and even humorous. She says that when the exhibit was set up in Hardwick earlier this year, about 30 people came through. Many of them later reported that they felt “encouraged, inspired and less alone after hearing these stories.”

Those visitors included one man, whom she estimates was in his sixties, who listened to the entire 35-minute audio recording. He explained later that he'd been fighting cancer and the listening exhibit really helped him deal with it.

He then shared with Thompson his own experience of visiting his grandmother on her deathbed when he was just 22 years old. At the time, the man told his grandmother, "You'll be fine." She died later that night. As the man told Thompson, he'd regretted that remark ever since, but felt he could finally find peace with it.

“I cannot tell someone about this project and not have them tell me their story," she says. "People really need to talk about it. We as a society do not talk about death. We’re really afraid of it.”

“Let’s take death out of the closet," she adds. "Put it out there and see how it changes our lives.” 

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