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Taboo talk ignited

Photos by Dan Bishop

April 2013

Terry Kaldhusdal (left) and Michael Bernhagen

Historically, people hate talking about death, but the tide is changing. In "Consider the Conversation: A Documentary on a Taboo Subject," most people randomly interviewed on a Manhattan street corner say they want to be at home surrounded by family and friends. Yet the vast majority of us will pass away in the unfamiliar surroundings of a hospital or nursing home.

Hospice educator Michael Bernhagen of Waukesha and fourth grade teacher Terry Kaldhusdal of Oconomowoc began making the documentary after their own life-changing experiences with dying relatives. The taboo nature of the discussion was daunting. "My fear from the very beginning was that we’d make a beautiful film about a very difficult subject and nobody would see it," Kaldhusdal says. That hasn’t been the case. "Consider the Conversation" has aired on 163 PBS stations in 30 states with expert industry interviews and gripping testimony from people who are struggling with their own fatal illnesses.

The documentary has also inspired "Honoring Choices Wisconsin," a pilot program The Wisconsin Medical Society launched last month in which physicians at participating hospitals talk about end-of-life choices with patients who face serious illness or are 55 or older.

Bernhagen says end-of-life options get lost in our focus on medical advances that keep us alive. "It’s like putting the cart before the horse," he says. "We are appealing directly to the expert medical culture in this country, to lead us to put the horse back in front of the cart; that’s what we’re seeing in Wisconsin."

The Wisconsin documentarians are working on a follow-up film. For more information, go to


This story ran in the April 2013 issue of: