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Halifax Heroes: Deborah Luscomb challenges attitudes towards death

Deborah Luscomb started the first death café in Halifax, bringing people together to discuss death.

Deborah Luscomb

Jeff Harper/Metro

Deborah Luscomb

“I recently lost a friend. He was in the infirmary for a month.”

Deborah Luscomb gestured down the corridor of the hospital, as if her friend’s body might still rest behind one of the closed doors.

“These heroic measures were taken to keep him alive. Part of that was out of a habitual tendency to see death as a failure.”

For the past four years Luscomb has dedicated herself to work that challenges prevailing attitudes towards death. In 2014, after two years in the company of her ailing sister in Boulder, Colorado, she returned to Halifax and started the city’s first death café.

“My generation has made a habit of taking things out of the closet,” Luscomb, 67, said.

Whether it was the sexual revolution, or the anti-war and civil rights movements, she said her generation has been adept at opening up difficult conversations.

“Now we’re dying and we see that things have gone awry at the end of life too.”

Sitting in the cafeteria of the Victoria General Hospital waiting for an ultrasound on her left lung (non-life threatening), she told Metro about her work to normalize the experience of death.

The Death Café, as the name suggests, brings people together to discuss death on the first Thursday of every month. The inaugural meeting was held at the Trident Cafe and garnered no more than ten people, according to Luscomb.

With the help of media coverage, the interest grew and forced Luscomb to move to a bigger space at Just Us! Coffeehouse, where the gathering continues to take place.

“It’s such a tender conversation, and part of that is because we don't do it,” she said of those monthly conversations. “What impresses me most is the attention to listening . . . people who come to Death Café really are there to listen and support. It’s quite inspiring”

Born in the shadow of World War II to an American bomber pilot in Frankfurt, Germany, Luscomb said death was practically taboo in her family.

“It was a big secret,” she said. “I never went to a funeral as a kid . . . you don’t talk about sex, you don’t talk about money, and you don’t talk about death.”

It was only when she arrived in Boulder in 2012 that death became somewhat of a fascination. She started training as a funeral director and taking care of bodies, while launching the first Death Café in that city.

Luscomb also spent a large part of her adult life as a midwife. She noticed some emotive parallels between the bookends of our existence.

“There’s no place else to be other than right here right now, with this contraction or with these last few breaths,” she said of the episodes of birth and death. “Both experiences are amazingly powerful and we don’t know what’s on the other side of either of them.”

Apart from the café, Luscomb also facilitates Death Matters workshops, a series of three guided meetings where participants have the opportunity to explore, document, and share their end-of-life wishes with loved ones.

“So many folks . . . never think about how they want to die, or how they want their body to be cared for after they die,” she said.

The lack of communication inevitably compounds an already stressful grieving situation, Luscomb explained.

“We could look at all of this, contemplate, and make some decisions, put them in writing, and all of that stress would be eliminated.”

Dawn Carson first met Luscomb 25 years ago through a midwife training program, back when Luscomb was the President of the Nova Scotia Midwifery Coalition. She’s since become something of an apprentice to Luscomb, helping to host the Death Café and facilitate workshops.

“I think she’s done remarkable work on opening conversations that are difficult to have,” Carson said of her decision to nominate Luscomb for Halifax Heroes. “Everybody sees that the work is really important . . . she’s managed to get the community mobilized to have this conversation.”

As for Luscomb, her motivation to host these discussions is, in many ways, rooted in her own fear of death.

“Part of it is developing a community of people who share this interest, so I don’t feel so alone,” she said. “To talk about everything we don’t know and everything we do know, and how we might approach this extraordinary adventure.”

And Luscomb is no stranger to adventure. When she was 60 years old, free of the responsibilities of parenthood, she decided to sell nearly all she owned, bought a car, and took of on a road trip.

“I went everywhere I could drive in North America where I could find people that I had loved or who had loved me in my life and I visited them.”

“I realize now it was a life review,” she said.

“It was goodbye.”

Have someone to nominate?

Each week, we will profile an unsung volunteer hero in our community as part of Halifax Heroes.

To nominate someone, email, Metro Halifax's managing editor, or Tweet @metrohalifax using the hashtag #HalifaxHeroes

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