Talking about death

Book clubs might seem standard fare for any library system, but Edmonton Public Library’s (EPL's) new collaboration with Covenant Health’s Palliative Institute is using the medium to tackle one of society’s most complex subjects — death.

The new Conversations about Death and Dying book club was recently launched with a view to getting Edmontonians talking more openly about end of life.

The book club represents the latest initiative to come out of the Palliative Institute’s Palliative Care Public Awareness project. It debuted online on April 7 and will continue as a pilot project through the spring and early summer.

“The institute came to us back in September 2021 looking for ideas for how libraries could be partners in a broader conversation, and I suggested a death and dying-themed book club,” explains Amy Wong, a library assistant at EPL’s Clareview branch and co-organizer of the club together with Susan Chau, community librarian at the Clareview branch.

“This format is intended to make the topic more accessible to a wider group of people who otherwise might not all want to sit around and talk about death, dying and advance care planning. It makes for a nice entry point into talking about a sensitive subject.”

Amy Wong (left) and Susan Chau, co-creators of the Conversations about Death and Dying Book Club
Library assistants and Conversations about Death and Dying co-facilitators Amy Wong (left) and Susan Chau.

Amy is well-suited to managing this club since she recently trained as an end-of-life doula at Douglas College, volunteers with Pilgrims Hospice and sits on the advisory committee of the Palliative Care Public Awareness project. Fellow organizer Susan took a course on death and dying during her undergraduate studies.

When the Palliative Institute team reached out, the pair had already been experiencing requests from the public for supports in this area.

“People had been coming up to us looking for information on death and dying, and so we put together lists of books, movies and other resources to help customers find information,” Susan explains. “Starting a book club on the subject seemed like the next logical step.”

The inaugural session centred on the book Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs, a funny, irreverent youth-oriented book that answers common (and less common) questions about death, written by American mortician, YouTube personality and death-positivity activist Caitlin Doughty. This choice reflects Amy and Susan’s aim to make the group as inviting to all age groups as possible.

“People showed up ready to share and discuss the topic,” says Susan of the evening. “There was an easy flow of questions related to death and the science of dying as described by the author. There were lots of laughs. No one seemed uncomfortable, and participants were engaged and keen to respond.” 

The next session will be held in person at the Clareview branch on May 5 starting at 7 p.m. It will focus on The End of Your Life Book Club, a memoir by New York Times bestselling author Will Schwalbe about bonding with his dying mother over their mutual love of reading.

Amy and Susan are quick to emphasize that the book club is not intended as a substitute for grief therapy.

“We advertise that this isn’t a bereavement or grief support group,” says Amy.

“We are empathetic and compassionate toward everything people may be going through, but we’re not counsellors or able to assist people with real emotional turmoil. It’s a venue to talk about a sensitive topic as well as a place for resources on advance care planning. But for those who show up who may be looking for bereavement support, we do provide a list of different counselling services available.”

Conversations about Death and Dying embodies the spirit of Compassionate Communities, a global movement seeking to foster communities that support those who are sick, dying, caregiving or grieving, with an emphasis on open conversations about death and dying. The Palliative Institute actively promotes Compassionate Communities by working with partners like EPL to help spread its message across Alberta.

“The Palliative Institute is excited to partner with EPL in providing comfortable settings for people to talk about death and dying,” says Palliative Institute scientific director Dr. Konrad Fassbender.

“The central tenet of Compassionate Communities is that we all have a role to play in supporting each other in times of crisis and loss and helping people be ready, willing and confident to have conversations about living and dying well,” says Konrad. “This new book club exemplifies this.”

Talking About Death
 Amy with a copy of the book being discussed at the May 5 book club meeting.

 Much has been written in the media in recent times about a “death positivity” culture that the pandemic has begun to foster. Amy acknowledges this while emphasizing that this culture is in its infancy.

“Death is inevitable and happens to all of us, and yet so many of us shy away from the subject and don’t do basic things like writing wills or providing instructions for family members,” says Amy.

“Death positivity is thinking about your own mortality and how you can make things a little easier for your loved ones. Since the pandemic, we have seen an increase in customers interested in learning more about death and dying and a demand for resources. But while people are more open to learning, we still have a long way to go to get through the taboo and to create open discussions.”

Registration for the May 5 session of Conversations about Death and Dying is now open. For more information, visit epl.ca/book-clubs or contact Susan Chau at susan.chau@epl.ca. For more information on end-of-life care and the Compassionate Communities movement, visit the Palliative Institute website.

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