Stand up and be counted, death workers

Kerrie Noonan, Australia’s Groundswell Project

Three things happened yesterday – a conversation, an interaction and a presentation – that made me wonder why we don’t talk more about death workers.

I was at the Everyday Compassion conference in Glasgow.

First thing: a conversation

Kerrie Noonan from Australia’s Groundswell Project sought me out. She wanted to tell me she’s a fan of Fling. Lovely. We chatted about what we both do… rogue death champions, working outside the system (mostly).

Kerrie said she prefers to use the term ‘death workers’ for the likes of us and all the people she encounters in various end-of-life roles.

At end of life we are death workers

“I call everyone a death worker,” she said. “So many people talk about being health workers but when people are at end of life, really, we are death workers.”

Second thing: an interaction

Mark Hazelwood, the Chief Executive of the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care kicked-off the conference, engaged and engaging as ever, by inviting people to stand up to be welcomed, group by group, by their role. This was a great way to give us a sense of the broad range of participants at the conference. They stood in batches… the health workers, the educationalists, the faith workers, the hospice teams, volunteers, staff from charities, grief workers, government officers, academics and more.

Bring on the death workers

By the end of his list, myself and only one or two others were still sitting. Mark threw in a couple more types “… the entrepreneurs…?” I don’t identify as an ‘entrepreneur’. I might take ‘social entrepreneur’. I’m a design innovator, a social innovator, a service designer and a consultant.

I realise that not fitting in is probably my preferred place in life. I think it’s what keeps me fresh and alive to what’s going on in the world. I hate the notion of sliding into group-think: “this is how we do it”. My automatic response… second nature to a service designer… is “OK. Show me. Tell me. Now how could we do it better?” And, yes, I’m also happy with ‘death worker’.

Jane Duncan & B at Everyday Compassion conference – two of Scotland’s death workers

The graveyard shift

Third thing: a presentation

The graveyard shift (‘scuse irresistible use of that term for post-lunch energy slump period) was a lively presentation by Helen Quinn, teacher at St Francis Xavier’s Primary School in Falkirk and Sally Paul, Lecturer in Social Work at Strathclyde University. Helen’s been doing amazing work on the ground with teachers, children and parents to engage in conversations about death and dying. Sally is evaluating it.

Death to the taboo

At school, they’ve undertaken a death, dying and bereavement programme of learning that fits very well with Curriculum for Excellence and its work around transition. They’ve been answering the many questions children naturally have about death. They’ve been helping children engage with death and dying. They’ve been allaying fears of teachers about talking to children about death. They’ve been reassuring parents that they are not doing anything weird; they are simply engaging with life’s reality and brushing off the taboo. Children are open to this in a way many adults are not because of our cultural and social constraints. Helen shared that pupils who’ve been through this learning are much better at talking death that their older siblings because of this programme of work.

So in this scenario, teachers are important death workers; as are parents. And clearly the younger siblings are death workers when they pass on their learning back home.

Helen shared a story about her early career when she’d been told by the Head Teacher that one boy’s dad had died in the summer holidays and not to mention it. Despite her instincts and to her later shame, for that whole year, she didn’t. She and her whole school and wider community have moved on a long way since then. Children in the corridors at school can be overheard talking about death, unafraid to ask questions. Excellent death work.

Get to work, death workers

In my presentation yesterday, I urged all those engaged in delivering end of life services who want to design compassion into services, to DO SOMETHING! Do anything. Get it wrong. Then talk review what’s going on, engage with users, redesign and make it better. As a service designer and death worker, let me know if I can help.

The conference was organised by Good Life Good Death Good Grief.