Before I Die walls in Gainesville spark conversation over death

Emily Mroz walked away with dust covering her right hand. On a black chalkboard wall, she wrote, “I want to be a bridesmaid in my sister’s wedding.”

“Before I die” was stenciled in bold letters before her small, bubbly handwriting.

Five “Before I Die” walls were scattered across Gainesville as an initiative to start the difficult discussion of dying, said Wendy Resnick, senior director of finance at UF Health Shands Financial Services.

More specifically, the walls were built to promote the National Health Care Decisions Day and advance directives, which are legal documents made to ease the process of death on family members. Advance directives can include everything from a living will to deeming a health care surrogate.

“Dying one of the few things that you can’t delegate,” Resnick said. “Even President Trump is going to die.”

Resnick and her team targeted specific populations in Gainesville in an effort to spark discussion, she said. One wall was posted on a brick wall near UF Shands to reach students studying in the medical field and another was plastered across a tan hallway in the Alachua County Senior Recreation Center.

“Rich people die, poor people die, black people die and white people die,” Resnick said. “It’s something that’s going to come to everybody, and it’s a very personal thing.”

The walls were hung in the beginning of April and have since filled up with chalk writing. Children have scribbled in pastels goals like, “swim with dolphins” and “help people.” The seniors, in straight, shaky penmanship, wrote dreams of “seeing the Northern Lights” and “reconcile with my brother.”

Some dreams are silly, like “own seven corgis” and “grow avocado trees.” Others are more thoughtful, “spend as much time with my grandkids” and “write the story of my life.”

Mroz, a researcher at the University of Florida, said she genuinely thought about her goals before writing on the wall.

Her office is tucked away in a small corner on the fifth floor of McCarty Hall. Up on her office walls are images of life. Four photographs of her swimming in Ginnie Springs fill the space above her computer and chalk flowers stretch across the adjacent wall.

Mroz is full of life. She has red curly hair and eagerly types on her computer. She talks at the speed of light and her eyes get big when someone mentions her research.

Despite all this, Mroz has probably considered death more than the average person.

She specializes in what she refers to as “end-of-life research.”

This essentially means she studies people’s thoughts, attitudes and actions towards death.

She works in the UF Life Story Lab, which conducts research on the role that autobiographical memory plays in sense of identity, self-continuity, relationships, social well being and directing future plans and goals.

Her curiosity started in the dining hall of a nursing home when she was 16 years old.

“I was bussing tables in the home and just loved the little interactions I’d have,” she said.

Mroz said every interaction and every conversation encouraged her to explore gerontology.

“I saw an opportunity to merge my two interests- psychology and seniors.”

Since then, she’s never looked back, and the “Before I Die” walls were the perfect opportunity to expand her passion.

“A project like this is what drew me to working at UF,” she said.

The Life Story Lab is looking at narrative data for this project, which means they’re recording pictures of what people are writing and observing trends.

Travelling has been a huge trend on every wall, Resnick said. The walls are filled with exotic destinations, such as New Zealand, Paris, Jamaica, Iceland and Italy.

“I think it has to do with the fact that it’s a luxury,” Mroz said. “Traveling isn’t guaranteed in life”

Beyond that, love is another large trend.

“It’s the typical trajectory of life,” she said. “So we’re constantly looking for it.”

Mroz wrote about being in her sister’s wedding on the wall in the Reitz Union.

“She’s pretty stubborn, so we’ll see if she ever gets married,” she laughed.

The walls in Gainesville have really encouraged people to think about life and what our priorities are, she said.

“Gainesville needed something like this.”

Walls can be found on the streets of Kerla, India. On abandoned buildings in Toyama, Japan and Quincy, Illinois.

The original wall was built by Candy Chang to commemorate someone she loved. It stretched across an abandoned house in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Resnick said after she heard about the walls she explored the Internet looking at pictures and watching TED Talks about its history.

“There are incredible stories behind every single wall,” she said. ”

The walls are scattered across the entire earth and have now found a home in Gainesville.

This is the first time walls have been built in Gainesville and centered on promoting advance directives, Resnick said.

Resnick said her team originally had planned to just hang one wall but one turned into five quickly.

The locations for the walls were picked intentionally, said Resnick.

They are located at the Alachua County Senior Recreational Center, Haven Hospice, J. Wayne Reitz Union, UF Health Science Center and Depot Park.

Depending on the location, the walls had different reactions, she said.

At the senior recreational center, Resnick heard opposing opinions.

“Some said, ‘that’s a very grim topic, I can’t believe you’re putting that up in here,’” she said. “On the other hand, we had some seniors who said they really appreciate it.”

Overall, the feedback has been positive.

Resnick said her favorite moment throughout the process was hanging the wall at the UF Health Science Center.

By the time her team mounted the first of four plywood boards, students and facility were rushing to write their answers.

Soon answers like, “make my family proud,” “see the Easter bunny” and “grow old with the one I love,” were scribbled on the board.

Three hours later and the boards were completely covered with chalk. People began writing in between lines, drawing pictures and scribbling their answers in any space they could find.

Alice Apathy, an executive assistant in the Office of the Senior Vice President, said she hopes the message behind the walls is reaching people.

When Apathy’s sister died unexpectedly at 49 years old, she said she understood the importance of advance directives.

Her mother and sister were nurses, so death was a common family discussion.

Her family knew exactly what her sister wanted in a situation like this, which eased a lot of the pressure, the 63-year-old said.

“I would’ve tormented myself if we didn’t have those conversations,” she said smiling with tears in her eyes.

Since then, she’s had to bury her mother, stepfather and a close uncle. Apathy emphasized how emotional situations like that can be, and how it’s hard to make a rational decision. Advance directives give people the opportunity to express the emotions, while knowing that the rational decisions have been discussed beforehand, she said.

“I’ve become an advocate for advance directives,” she said. “They help create a sense of peace.”

Her husband calls her a pessimist for discussing death, but she said she’s a realist.

“I could die any day,” she said. “And I remind him of that.”

Each wall has information on advance directives and the importance of preparation in dying. Apathy said she’s not sure if the message is getting across to everyone, but “even if a few individuals are impacted, then the walls have done its job.”

“When you’re young, you think you’re immune to death,” she said. “You’re not.”

Throughout the years, her and her husband have become more aware. They have conversations over dinner and have both filled out wills and advance directives.

Her husband used to drive a motorcycle without a helmet, racing down the highways, she said.

“He was a real balls-to-the-wall type of guy,” she laughed.

He’s now traded in his dangerous lifestyle for a three-wheeled motorcycle and a helmet.

And although her family probably talks more about death than the average family, she said it’s a conversation that everyone should learn to be comfortable with.

Mroz said the “Before I Die” walls are the perfect starting point to spark a conversation.

She was scrolling on Instagram one night when someone posted a photograph of a wall with a caption that said, “things that get you thinking.”

Conversations are happening and that was the goal all along, she said.

“We should be living knowing that there is an endpoint,” she said. “These walls are just a moment a self-reflection.”

Created By
Monica Humphries
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