How opening a shop helped us learn about death

 

In 2019 we launched The Departure Lounge, the Academy’s most ambitious public engagement project ever. Our aim was to initiate a public conversation on death and dying and feed what we heard into the Academy's  policy work.

So what was The Departure Lounge?

‘The Departure Lounge’ was a taboo-busting installation that opened for May 2019 in Lewisham Shopping Centre. The pop-up shop used the metaphor of travel, findings from medical science, and personal stories from the end of life to help visitors explore and share their thoughts on death and dying. We worked with creative agency The Liminal Space to create an engaging and empowering space to talk more openly about our inevitable last journey.

 

Opening the Departure Lounge in a shopping centre was really important to us because we wanted to take the conversation to a place where people wouldn’t expect to be talking about death. We wanted to go somewhere where people were busy living their lives and encourage them to think about death as a part of living.

During the time the pop-up was open 2551 members of the public came into the shop and engaged in discussions in some way. Many more hovered outside the entrance, reading our posters, asking questions and starting discussions as they went on their way.

An independent evaluation of the project released today notes that The Departure Lounge provided an important service for the community, in the community. Following their visit people recognised how important it was to overcome the taboo and talk about death, that emotions and cultural norms make it difficult, and that it is important to prepare for the end of life by letting loved ones know your wishes.

For some a visit to the Departure Lounge bore witness to their experiences of death and dying, and even provided solace for those living with end-of-life care dilemmas and grief. Visitors had experiences that were emotionally impactful and the content led to a realisation (or reaffirmation) that thinking about death and end of life care is important and that there are choices that need making.

Each day Guides were available in The Departure Lounge to have conversations with visitors. These Guides came for a range of backgrounds, from researchers and healthcare professionals to people who had become experts on talking about grief and bereavement through their own experiences.

[Your departure dictionary: legal terms to know]

The Guides quickly became as much a part of the installation as the suitcases and travel documents on display in the shop. The personal stories and conversations they offered were key in easing past the initial hesitancy that many visitors displayed. Guides witnessed and supported a striking range of emotions, from anger and distress to anxiety, grief reflection and relief.

Listening as well as talking

Although our principle aim was simply to enable a conversation about death and dying, we also collected and analysed visitor’s opinions to support our policy work. This included a light installation where visitors could write their personal stories and share their hopes for a final journey or memories of loved ones.

We also worked with Ipsos MORI to run a poll exploring what people knew about dying and focus group discussions with people from a range of cultural, religious and socio-economic backgrounds. You can read all about what we heard in the Ipsos Mori report ‘The Departure Lounge, Public attitudes to death and dying’ and associated Ipsos Mori webpages,

New poll shows how little we know about dying

We’ve been collecting all those conversations and feeding them through our policy work to make sure the people responsible for researching, planning and delivering end of life care can hear what the public think. Read more about this policy work and see our blog on 5 things we learnt about death from The Departure Lounge.

What started in Lewisham has spread across the UK

After opening the pop-up shop we developed a smaller flat pack version of The Departure Lounge, which have been sent out to over 60 volunteers across the country. So far events have taken place at science festivals, podcast recordings, in hospitals and hospices. We have continued on our quest to take the conversation to unexpected places including branches of Barclays Bank in Wales, a café by the sea in Frinton and local branches of Sainsbury’s. Other events are planned to take place up until May. We’ll be releasing another evaluation of these flat pack events later in the year.

Where next?

We know that The Departure Lounge creates a space where people have unusually open conversations about life, death, loss and family. Following a visit to The Departure Lounge in Lewisham many people showed awareness that they have agency and choice with some visitors resolving to take action. Many visitors said they would use the installation resources to scaffold difficult conversations they felt they needed to have with family or friends.

We’re looking forward to seeing where those conversations take us and everyone involved. We’d love to hear what you think. You can follow the discussion at #thedeparturelounge or visit us at www.departure-lounge.org

Funding for the project was received from Wellcome Trust and the Health Foundation and we are very grateful to them for their support.

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