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Why Every Death Scholar Needs to Attend the International Death, Grief, and Bereavement Conference

I stepped out of the airport into sprawling farmland. My uber was lapping the airport, 9 minutes away, so I breathed in the hot night air and gazed up at the mostly black sky night sky. I had arrived in La Crosse, Wisconsin to attend the International Death, Grief, and Bereavement Conference (IDGB) which takes place every June at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. My uber finally arrived and took me to Reuter Hall where I crashed into the twin bed in my assigned cinderblock dorm room, quickly falling asleep after 13 hours of travel.

I’ve attended a lot of conferences—in person and online—mostly centered on communication. But I’ve never attended a death, dying, and grief conference before this. The IDGB has been taking place for over 40 years and some of the attendees have been participating for over 30 years. The conference is small, by my best estimate there were less than 100 people in attendance, but this intimacy makes for a friendly conference atmosphere. Despite its intimate size the IDGB boasts a range of attendees from several countries, including the UK, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, China, Canada, and Australia.

From left to right: Mike, Cheyenne, Laura

I came to the IDGB to facilitate a round table on the rhetoric and ethics of listening at end-of-life with two of my colleagues, Laura Bruns and Mike Alvarez. Our roundtable was attended by a small but extremely talkative and generative group eager to discuss various ways that communication could be pursued more ethically in end-of-life spaces like hospitals and hospice. Everyone at the conference was eager to talk. Most presenters and keynote speakers incorporated some degree of audience participation in their presentations, engaging us attendees with worksheets and open-ended questions. No teeth pulling was involved. Audience members were quick to participate, collaborate, and ask questions. It seemed there was very little room for ego and a lot of room for listening.

As communication scholars, I think that this is the kind of conference environment that is most ideal for us. Presenting to audiences that are engaged and impassioned, ready to teach and learn alongside us, creates an environment of open dialogue that spills out into the hallways and lunch sessions. Allow me to briefly summarize the keynotes and panels I attended in the hopes of imploring you to consider submitting a proposal and attending next year’s International Death, Grief, and Bereavement conference in 2024.

Everyone attends the keynote lectures at the IDGB as they are all held in non-conflicting timeslots following the included continental breakfast and hot lunch (don’t worry, they also have snacks as well, twice a day). The four keynotes I attended were facilitated, respectively, by Danny Nugus, a senior forensic medicine social worker from Australia, Doneila McIntosh, a PhD student at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, Heidi Mueller, a recent doctoral recipient from the University Hospital of Giessen and Marburg in Germany, and Jim Monahan, a self-employed hospice care worker.

Danny spoke Monday morning after breakfast on the forensic medical office he works in in New South Wales. The forensic medical social workers mediate communication with families who have lost loved ones due to sudden or violent deaths that result in their loved ones being sent to the coroner’s office for an autopsy. Danny and his team create a warm space for families to come and visit their loved ones, to touch them, to sit with them, to dress them, to talk to them, while they wait for them to be released by the medical examiner. As Danny put it, his team works to slow down the process of grief to give families time to deal with a death that may be sudden and tragic. In the words he quotes from a friend, “Grief is a persistent and fucked up phenomena. But I don’t want to waste it.” Danny and his time make space for grief to be valued.

Doneila McIntosh - Image courtesy of Andrew Vitale

Doneila spoke on Monday afternoon about the experience of disenfranchised grief in the Black community it the United States. Having worked for over 10 years as a hospital chaplain and Black pastor in Minneapolis, Doneila offered us an unwavering look at failures of the medical and death industry when it comes to serving Black families. “The condition of Black life is mourning, and to live in perpetual wake,” Doneila said. Too often, Black Americans not only wrongfully die at the hands of police and medical institutions that aren’t designed to serve them, they are also judged and disenfranchised from their grief by a culture that understand white grief to be the norm.

Heidi spoke on Tuesday morning about the experience of grieving in Germany, what she calls a “high-speed society.” Oversight of Germany’s grief professionals isn’t very structured, Heidi shared, and for this reason there are a diverse array of grief work professionals, some of whom have unclear working qualifications and practices. Heidi seeks to remedy this issue with structure and change to the attitude toward grief in Germany. She is one of the founding members of Europe’s very first grief conference.

Jim Monahan - Image courtesy of Andrew Vitale

Jim is the last keynote speaker I saw in the afternoon on Tuesday. Jim’s keynote is part talk, park workshop as he shares about his experience working in hospice care for several decades. He started his keynote by saying, “This conference is really less of a conference and more of a community, and I feel that right now.” Jim talked about how the work we do in death and grief is a calling. His stories of working in hospice care bring me to the edge of tears. He has no notes but instead spoke with the ease and humility that only comes from a lifetime of experiencing working to help other people live and die better.

If anything, that is the core goal of the IDGB, working together as a community to ensure that other people—including those within the community of scholars and professionals in attendance—can live and die better. The panels I attended spread across a variety of topics, including ethics in grief counseling, palliative care in Uganda, resources for LGBTQ+ people in funeral spaces, and the impact of globalization on death care and management. These panels are led by researchers, grief counselors, chaplains, hospice workers, and even professors of thanatology. I’ve never taken so many notes at a conference.

Every evening after panels conclude at 4pm, one of the organizers facilitates a mindfulness session on the outdoor patio. At the beginning of the conference on Monday, Gerry, one of the organizing committee members welcomed us to the conference, reminding us to be mindful of the energy that conferences often consume. “Conferences can often be very intense and tiring, so please take breaks, have snacks, come to mindfulness, so you can enjoy yourself while you’re here.” Even such a simple recognition and encouragement to center our own wellness is refreshing. This kind of compassion and attention is everywhere at IDGB. In the main ballroom where we all eat breakfast, lunch, and attend keynotes, there is a handmade quilt in the back that attendees are invited to pin the names of lost loved ones to so that they can be remembered during the memorial service on Wednesday when the conference concludes. Gerry also invited us all to take from the handmade pot holders that his sister makes so that conference attendees—or as Gerry calls us, guests—can receive a gift for our participation.

These gestures are certainly not ones that I am familiar with at other conferences I have attended, but they are welcomed and extremely needed at all of our communal gatherings where we seek to share knowledge and commune with one another. It should be no surprise that these gestures of compassion and care appear in a place where you’re literally surrounded by individuals whose 9-5 jobs and chosen volunteer work involves showing love and care to people who start out as total strangers to them.

The structure of the IDGB conference reinforces many of the principles and values that the panels and keynote speakers touch on. Over the two short days I spent at IDGB I had endless conversations with other attendees about death and grief topics that I often find I can’t discuss with other colleagues or friends in quite as much depth. If I were to try to share all of the poignant advice and food for thought I received at the conference, I would go on for another 1,500 words at least. So instead, I’ll simply implore us as communication scholars to lean in to a conference like this and seek to replicate the values and practices of care, collaboration, and community that should be fostered in every place but especially those where we look death and grief in the face and try to ask how we can help ourselves and others live and die better.

Cheyenne Zaremba is a PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State University. When not studying the rhetoric of death and dying, Cheyenne enjoys visiting cemeteries, doing tactile crafts, playing video games, and baking gluten-free vegan treats.

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