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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Afraid To Talk About Death? This Exhibit Might Change Your Mind

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The Wake Up To Dying traveling exhibit features interviews with more than 20 Vermonters about death, dying and life. The traveling exhibit is at Montpelier's Christ Episcopal Church July 24-26.

It’s natural that people, for the most part, do not like to talk about death and dying. An audio exhibit in Montpelier this weekend is trying to change that.

TheWake Up To Dying Project gathers stories about death, dying and life, and supplements them with art exhibits and discussion. The traveling exhibit is at Montpelier's Christ Episcopal Church July 24-26.

Nina Thompson, the project’s executive director, says that the topic is difficult because we can't control it, nor do we understand it.

"I think we tend to associate death with a lot of pain and suffering," Thompson says. "But I wonder, if we were just a little more familiar with the subject, if we could hear other people's experiences with it, if we would think about it differently. Could we be a little less afraid of it? ... Could we live differently?"

One audio clip features a hospital social worker from Morrisville, talking about one of his clients who has to care for his wife:

Wake Up To Dying: "She Feels Me"

"I said to him, you know, 'Gosh, how do you do this, day after day? You clean her up, you keep her safe.' He goes, 'Damn sight easier than milking cows or cleaning carpets, I'll tell you. Love that woman with all my heart. She might not know my name anymore but she feels me. She feels who I am, and we dance, and I love her.'"

She believes people might be less afraid of death if we could hear other people's stories, which can often be both compelling and humorous.

The exhibit features multiple interviews with about 20 Vermonters, ranging from caregivers and doctors to chaplains and people who are dying.

"We're exploring topics like grieving, and rituals, and dementia. And sudden death, as well," Thompson says.

"I think we tend to associate death with a lot of pain and suffering. But I wonder, if we were just a little more familiar with the subject ... Could we be a little less afraid of it?" - Nina Thompson, Wake Up To Dying Project executive director

Given the off-putting topic, the exhibit is designed to be especially inviting to visitors. "When you arrive at the beautiful courtyard at the Episcopal Church in Montpelier, you'll see our two big white tents," Thompson says. "One of them is our listening studio, and you'll be able to sit in there comfortably and listen to our audio, and the other tent you'll see is a resource tent, where we're sharing information from local organizations."

There will also be a giant chalkboard for people to write the things on their life's bucket list, as well as community discussions throughout the weekend.

Thompson says that despite peoples' initial reluctance to listen to these stories, they quickly became interested. "They're nodding and they're laughing and they're tearing up, and they're turning to their neighbor ... wanting to talk about it. I think it was really surprising to me to see how quickly they changed their minds about how difficult the stories would be to listen to once they heard them," she says.

Another audio clip features a participant talking about his initial feeling of isolation following a cancer diagnosis:

Wake Up To Dying: "We're In The Same Boat"

"Fortunately for me, prostate cancer, at least my prostate cancer, has really given me time to reflect on that, and I realize, 'Oh, no, we're all in the same boat.' And I have deflect some of the unwanted concern of friends on occasion by saying, 'You know, if you see the water up to my neck at my end of the boat, spare me some of your concern, because I don't know if you've looked, because the water is at least up to your knees.' We really are in the same boat."

Thompson would like to see the project travel around the country, in hopes of shifting the paradigm and stigma surrounding conversation about death and dying. "We've been invited to so many places around the country already," she says.

Neal was a reporter and VPR's All Things Considered host from 2001 to 2014. He joined VPR in 1996, hosting VPR's jazz programming, including live performances from the VPR studios and the Discover Jazz Festival. Prior to VPR, Neal was a programmer and host for WNCS in Montpelier and WDEV in Waterbury. He holds a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College.
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