Isabel Merrin was an intern for The Conversation Project (TCP) for three years while she was a Tufts University student. How did this Millennial turn her passion for promoting open end-of-life conversations into a thought-provoking TEDTalk? TCP decided to find out.
How did you find your way to The Conversation Project (TCP)?
When I first got to Tufts as a freshman, I had been volunteering in hospice care throughout high school, and I wanted to continue my work on topics like geriatrics, elder care, and things of that sort.
When I got into the Tisch Scholars program at Tufts, the program gave me an opportunity to formulate an internship based on my interests and passions. The dean of the program, Alan Solomont, helped connect me with Rosemary Lloyd [TCP’s advisor to faith communities] and everything clicked into place.
How did students react when you started promoting discussions about death and dying on campus?
It was definitely very mixed. At first, most people — including faculty and administrators, not just students — were surprised and shocked. Some weren’t sure what to say. They said things like, “Why do you want to talk about these topics? They’re morose and sad.”
It was a slow start getting people on campus involved and willing to talk about it. I think a lot of people have a lot of fear about the issue. There’s also a massive stigma about death and dying.
It was definitely weird reaching out to people when we organized the first Death Over Dinner on campus. [Editor’s note: Death Over Dinner events encourage guests to share a meal while talking about life and death.] I had to explain it in full detail and pull in favors from my closest friends. I said, “This is going to be an interesting and cool event, I promise. You’re going to get a ton out of it.” Once people were there, they couldn’t stop talking.
Was there any controversy when the administration found out you were planning this event?
Yeah, there was. Before I ran the first Death Over Dinner event, Rosemary advised me to reach out to the chaplain, and some health service administrators to let them know that I was doing this. They all responded with, “Hold on, stop. Let’s meet. Let’s talk about this.” They were very much against it at first.
Rosemary and I met with the chaplain, and four or five administrators. They expressed all of their fears. I made a PowerPoint to walk them through what the event was going to be like, and the questions I was going to ask the participants. I think we put their minds at ease by the end.
What happened at the first event?
A lot of different personal stories — which really makes the event what it is — came up in conversation. As people started opening up, they talked about everything — about their family members, new burial rituals that they’d heard about. For example, there’s this new thing going around on Facebook about how you can bury your ashes in a pot with a tree or a plant.
We talked about mental health, which is a big topic right now on college campuses. We talked about suicide. We talked about social media. We talked about movies, television, and the news.
What surprised you the most?
I wasn’t expecting students to open up as much as they did. I was surprised by how many young people have experienced the death of a friend or family member. It’s easy to assume that just because we are young we’re not exposed to these things.
What gives you hope that the Millennial generation is going to deal with death and dying better than other generations have?
I feel like we’re not really coping better than other generations because I feel every generation should be talking about it at all times, throughout our lives. I hope we’ll talk about it now and that we’ll still be talking about it when we’re older.
We should be having the conversation in different places with younger people — not just with older generations in nursing homes or hospitals. If you start early, the conversation will grow with you. Whether you’re 10, 20, 30 or 70 or 80 and it’s your mother, father, or grandfather’s death that you’re experiencing, or your own, life will be more meaningful if you’re prepared to have the conversation.
Note: This conversation was edited for length and clarity.