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Michael Hebb has been a loud voice in the end of life, dying well, and grief space for the better part of a decade. More than 1 million people around the world have used his tool, Death Over Dinner, to have critical conversations about an unavoidable experience.
From celebrities like the Obamas to entrepreneurs like Tim Ferriss and Arianna Huffington and quite literally everyone in between –– Michael is a natural builder of community, something so necessary for our quality of life, lengths of life, and how we handle life altering events and the grief that follows.
We had Michael on our Instagram Live during the COVID-19 pandemic to understand how we was viewing, well, just about everything. The conversation highlights the importance of ritual, whatever that might be for you, in times like these –– and for when times like these end.
Watch the full conversation below, or the read the transcript below that.
Michael Hebb: Absolutely. I'm honored to spend time with this community. As you know, Eterneva, I think, is one of the most extraordinary things happening in this space. And so it's great to chat with you folks!
So, Death Over Dinner started eight years ago in a very different time. Not just a very different time from COVID but a very different time in American culture around death and dying and grief.
The conversation about end of life, the conversation about our mortality, about dying well, about even grieving was not front page news.
And it seemed a very important thing to talk about when I learned personally that people aren't getting what they want at the end of their lives.
The statistic that 75% of people want to die at home and only 25% of us do, that more than half of America wasn't getting what they wanted, was what inspired Death Over Dinner.
We realized that what was standing in the way of people getting their wishes fulfilled during the most important or one of the most important transitions, events, or experiences of their life was a lack of talking about it.
We created Death Over Dinner as a way of giving people a beautiful, warm, gentle, inviting way to have this conversation about the end of life.
It was also meant to wake people up, and that's why we used the word death in the title. We hit a nerve internationally, for sure, and everything has changed.
Death is front page news, not just because of COVID. Prior to this, the Good Death Movement, the dying well movement, and others have really become a focus culturally.
We've had over a million people sit down for a Death Over dinner and use our resources to have this critical conversation.
There are now medical communities and clinicians at Cleveland Clinic and Memorial Sloan Kettering that are having this conversation using our tools. It's been a remarkable eight years, and I've talked to thousands upon thousands of people about their end-of-life wishes.
Michael Hebb: Well, there's a couple things here.
You're right. We have a deficit of ritual around death and grief. We've moved away from faith-based rituals, or a lot of people have. Many people still have them intact. I think even faith-based rituals have become less prevalent, though, within faith communities.
So there's a great forgetting that has happened around ritual, almost like the same forgetting that happened around people cooking for themselves or growing their own food, and talking about death, quite frankly.
When we have these losses of literacies around death, ritual, food, et cetera, we end up having a loss of empowerment. Literacy leads to empowerment. That loss means we're not able to say what it is we want and to get it.
Dinner is one of those rituals that luckily never went away. Sure, meals are eaten in the car in the United States. Perhaps many more people are now eating a meal on the couch with streaming services and the pandemic. But we've had to relook at our rituals during the COVID era.
For instance, with Death Over Dinner, it's always been the case that we would have people be surprised by the questions at the table.
A death dinner is just a group of people sitting together and responding to some conversational prompts with a couple of rituals at either side of the dinner.
We really liked the impact of holding on to the questions and then surprising people with them. But, we've changed that. We did a virtual death dinner for 50 people in breakout rooms on Zoom. It was so powerful! It still works!
Yet, we gave everyone the questions beforehand. We wanted people to not be surprised, to be able to think about it. There's enough going on in the world with surprises!
And, a lot of the stuff that was built in the last 10 years around death literacy was built for a culture that denies death, not one that's immersed in it every day.
So myself and a lot of the leaders in the end-of-life space, we're having to look hard at what we are saying are good practices and what can be very helpful to people.
Michael Hebb: Yeah. Ritual is a tricky word. It is triggering for a lot of people. It's very much misunderstood, and so I think just giving a little background to people helps.
Some people are like, "Yeah, I've been building altars for years, and I pray and et cetera."
For me, though, I always go to Joseph Campbel to really understand what ritual is. He's an incredible mythologist and historian and writer.
And here is one thing that Joseph Campbell said.
"The function of ritual, as I understand it, is to give form to human life, not in the way of a mere surface arrangement, but in depth."
Especially now, when everything has changed, these basic rituals are tent poles.
There's actually this idea that when you do a ritual, you create an axis mundi. You create order in the universe by saying, "This is the center of the universe where I'm enacting this ritual."
That's a longer conversation, of course, but even making a joyful noise for healthcare workers can be a ritual.
There's a ritual to observe the ninth with a website called Observetheninth.org. The goal is to take a day each month to really observe the collective grief and your individual grief around COVID. And then, there are kind of more tongue-in-cheek rituals like with Jimmy Kimmel and his idea to have Formal Fridays. He's doing that with his wife for date nights.
These things are rituals.
Prayer is a ritual. People that have never prayed before, people who have never built an altar before, are realizing that creating that kind of time and that intentionality does give some order and meaning to the chaos.
There's a reason to practice these things. There's the basic function, that it reduces your cortisol level.
It reduces stress to pray. It reduces stress to light a candle on a certain time each night and think about your loved ones that are no longer here, or to make a joyful noise.
We know that physiologically, it helps us in the moment. But the other thing is rituals become more effective and impactful the more that we do them.
So we don't know how long we're going to be in this new normal, and there's a good chance you won't be able to be at a funeral of a loved one or at the bedside of a loved one who's dying. You won't be able to have best-case scenarios, and it will be very helpful to have some of these rituals in your life as a way of keeping some sanity and some healing, to create some lift, some order, some moment in intentionality.
And they're awkward, of course! Rituals are designed to make us feel a little bit uncomfortable because we are surrendering to something larger than ourselves.
You might feel ridiculous doing the morning dance, sharing your dance with your friends, or whatever it is. But the psychological thing that is happening for you is you are surrendering to something that's greater than yourself instead of trying to control it.
Those are the colors in the rainbow we need right now. We can't control this shit. We have to recognize that, and rituals can help.
Michael Hebb: It's true. It's a terrible thing to have your work be needed and desired because of a tragedy.
Megan Devine and I have talked about this, about how we've been shouting from the mountaintops for years.
"Do this work. Do this thinking. Get to know your loved one's wishes. Get deeply into your grief and understand it instead of just repressing it."
And now the world is turning and saying, "Please. Yeah. That! We need it now."
And it's hard to have the work appreciated in a tragedy when it was actually designed for normal times. But here we are.
Michael Hebb: Death Over Dinner is about creating resilience, for sure. It is also about, and I think Elizabeth Gilbert speaks about this really beautifully, the idea of transmuting fear into intuition.
So, instead of being up here with fear, coming down into our bellies and listening to ourselves. When you do deep belly breaths, that's what you're doing. You're actually getting into –– whether it's chakras you align with or Chinese medicine or just the practice of trusting your gut–– the gut of it.
You don't even need to have any “woo” in your understanding of the universe to realize that getting into our intuitive space, getting down into our bellies, is a way to address fear instead of being motivated by fear.
And so our bellies and our intuition and those deep breaths, that's all about knowing ourselves.
That's what Joseph Campbell was talking about. We know ourselves through knowing our place in relationship to things that are bigger.
But to get to that quiet voice inside and to start to trust that and to feed that and spend time with that, that’s why we need rituals and dinners and creating space so that there is less room for fear.
It's also a strategy. So many people feel fear and don't know where it's coming from.
That's hard, to have the awareness to go back to what the root is, either in the moment or psychologically. It's hard work.
But then also, just to have a strategy of how to transform it so it doesn't loop and spiral and persist. There's so much great work that's being done out there with so many healing practices. That's what they're trying to do. They are trying to get us in touch with our intuition.
Michael Hebb: Yeah, and so many people are asking what is different about this time and end-of-life conversations.
Eterneva is about people identifying how people want to be memorialized, how they want to be remembered, how they want to be honored. And when people do communicate that to their loved one, that's a gift in the fact that their loved one's grief will be more meaningful.
It won't be as long and it won't be as steep if we know how to honor our loved ones. So the trick is finding out how they want to be honored, and that's always hard.
Having that conversation isn’t made easier because we're facing COVID and we're all having this great death crisis and our priorities are shifting. This is not an easier conversation now. It is a hard conversation always.
It's actually more hard right now because people are in fight-or-flight.
In the future, we will be able to see that COVID inspired many things. But right now, we’re in panic mode. Right now, the one thing we have going for us is that this is collective. We aren’t singling anyone out. It isn't, "Mom, you need to get prepared!” Or, “Dad, we need to have this conversation. I need to know what your end-of-life plan is."
We all know we need to have that conversation right now.
As a family, this is a great excuse to get prepared! It's a great excuse to get the five wishes done or to have a death dinner or do the conversation project. All of these are incredible resources.
And, you don't have to have a directional conversation. It's completely reasonable to say, "Hey, let's all get prepared. Let's take a Friday night and let's open a bottle of wine and let's get on Zoom and let's do the five wishes together."
If you said that three months ago, people would be like, "You have an agenda. You’re the person that always talks about death!"
Now, they'll be like, "Yeah, you're right. I'm in."
Seder was actually a response to not being able to gather. It was created because the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, and they couldn't have Passover as a gathering.
So, they distributed it into people's homes. I'm not even Jewish, but when I heard that, I thought, "That is an incredible idea and response! "
So Zoom is like the new Seder in some ways!
Anyway, I would like to close with these two paragraphs by Elizabeth Renzetti in The Globe and Mail.
"I'm not going to suggest this crisis has a silver lining, not when medical workers and shop staff and home care assistants are out there putting their lives on the line and people with the virus are dying, afraid and alone. There is no silver lining, but there is a rare opportunity to see how behavior changes when it is challenged by a new and terrifying threat.
It seems to me that we've quickly, but perhaps only temporarily, lost our appetite to strive for perfection. I find myself perversely heartened by the anti-Instagram world now on display, the messy bookshelves in Zoom calls, the misshapen sourdough loaves, the gray roots, the clueless spouses wandering around pantless, the wonky pets. It makes you marvel at the energy we spent maintaining the illusion of perfection in the first place."
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