Death Over Dinner: a way to have the 'difficult conversation'

May 13, 2017 10:42:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


As a longtime nurse who has worked in many parts of the world, Stephanie Holcombe is well aware that people deal with death in various ways. We all know we're getting there, she said, but some are prepared, calm and accepting while others come in skidding, "almost like a train wreck." More people might handle it all better if there were opportunities to frankly open up about the subject. So when Holcombe, formerly of Columbus, became aware of a nonprofit organization called Death Over Dinner, its concept resonated with her. 


"It was about two months after my mom died, and death and grief were on my radar in a very personal way," she said.  


Death Over Dinner was founded by Michael Hebb in Seattle, Washington, in 2013. Hebb worked with a group of health care and wellness professionals committed to breaking the taboo regarding conversations about end of life. ("How we want to die represents the most important and costly conversation America isn't having," states the organization's website, The result is described on the site as an "uplifting, interactive adventure that transforms this seemingly difficult conversation into one of deep engagement, insight and empowerment." 


The idea is to gather friends and family around a table to break bread and take part in conversation that helps navigate fears and shed inhibitions. Guidance to facilitate these dinners is provided through the website. 


Following her own mother's passing last November, and deaths in the families of dear friends, Holcombe felt compelled to become involved. 


"I was just very inspired when I found out about the organization and committed to myself to host one of these dinners, wherever in the world I am, each month for the next year." 


Her first was in Washington, D.C., where she is currently based as a family nurse practitioner and nurse midwife. 


"It was with a group of my friends. It was a roaring success; there were tears and laughter and memories," Holcombe said. 


While visiting her father in Columbus in April, Holcombe organized a small dinner.  


"We open up with a toast to someone we remember that has passed away, and we share why that person matters, what impact they left us with," she shared. It's largely about bringing a sense of gratitude to the table, acknowledging ancestors and loved ones and putting words to someone deeply admired, she explained. From there, the conversation can flow when people are given a safe place to reveal and become vulnerable and authentic. 


"It's really powerful conversation. It's cathartic," Holcombe said. It's also a way of honoring her late mother and the lessons she left of unconditional love. 


Holcombe encourages others to read about Death Over Dinner, to listen to Michael Hebb's 2013 Ted Talk, accessible on YouTube, and perhaps even plan a test dinner. Guidance is offered at 


"As an ICU nurse for 10 years, I know death is such a different experience for each family, and now with the recent death of my mother, I know all too well how ill-prepared some people are for the inevitable end," said Holcombe.  


The conversation is imperative, she added -- not a new topic, but almost a lost topic because current culture seldom provides a platform for it. 


"Very miraculous things come out in the conversations just by giving people the space," she said. "These are very needed and necessary and normal events in a therapeutic way."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.