Doing Death Differently

By Stephen Jones

Dying is one of the most normal things in life. Everyone does it, including him and her, you and me. How can we not talk about, and even ignore the very thing that happens to us all? 

This general attitude of avoidance reflects our culture’s relationship with death, which in our time has been removed from its central place in social life and relocated to the margins of our community and consciousness. From this estranged relationship, it is easy to understand our perspective of death as an unjust, even insulting interruption of life, liberty and our pursuit of happiness. For many, death is a foreign invader to resist at all costs, an enemy to fight to the bitter end.

But what if rather that pushing death away we could entertain and value other kinds of knowledge and definitions of death? It has the potential to change the discussions that we have about the end of life, how we care for the dying, how we honor the dead, and how we support those living with loss.

In his newly published book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully (2017), renowned teacher Frank Ostaseski lays out an alternative relationship with death.

“Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most. And the good news is we don’t have to wait until the end of our lives to realize the wisdom death has to offer.”

At Hospice of Santa Barbara, our Community Engagement and Education Program is bringing to life conversations and community actions around death, dying and bereavement. Reaching out also to people whose life has yet to be impacted by a life-threatening illness or is not actively grieving the death of a loved one, our aim is to encourage people to think about death not as morbid or taboo, but as a significant and meaningful part of life.

Starting conversations gives people the space to reflect on what matters, time to ask questions, and a chance to get informed, empowered, and involved. We don’t have to wait until we are dying or grieving, the lessons of living well and dying well are relevant at all stages of life, not just at the end.

The topic of death is having a revival and we’re on a mission to get people talking, planning and better prepared. We’re not the only ones with this mission; people and organizations across America are working with and in their communities to change the way we do death.

While it may seem scary to think about your own mortality, becoming death literate and building your capacity for end-of-life planning can help create healthier community attitudes about death.

Talking about death helps us articulate and affirm who we are and what we ultimately care about, leaving us better able to embrace the mysteries of death and to appreciate life.

Talking about death can change not only the way we think about dying but it could transform the way that we live our lives.

HSB offers regular opportunities to join the conversation, including our monthly Learn at Lunch series and our discussion-based group, Death and Cupcakes. These are non-clinical meetings open to the entire community. Drop-ins are most welcome. More details and schedules can be found on our website calendar.

Community Education is just another way Hospice of Santa Barbara supports not only how we die, but how we live.  To learn more or arrange a presentation on any end of life care topics call 805-563-8820 or visit