When she's at a cocktail party and someone asks her what she does for a living, Kelly Grosklags isn't always sure how to answer.
If she responds that she works in hospice, people either say her job sounds depressing or that she's an angel. If Grosklags responds that she's a therapist, people say they hope she isn't analyzing them.
The reality of her job — her calling, really — would start a much deeper conversation.
Grosklags has been an end-of-life grief therapist, primarily for cancer patients, for nearly 30 years. She helps them come to terms with the end of this life and prepare for whatever comes next.
A few years ago, Grosklags decided to pull back from her private practice to focus on teaching and writing. She kept working with each of her patients until they died. One of her final patients was Judy Erdahl, a 57-year-old woman with metastatic breast cancer who knew she was in her final days.
When Erdahl asked Grosklags what she was going to do with her time after scaling back her therapy practice, Grosklags told her she wanted to make an educational film for medical providers on how to have difficult end-of-life conversations.
"I want to be in it," Erdahl told her.
"In the back of my mind, I thought, 'She's weeks away from dying — I don't have my stuff together,' " Grosklags said.
Not long after, she got a phone call from Erdahl, saying she needed to do this as part of her legacy. "I mean it," Erdahl said.
So Grosklags reached out to Bryan Piatt, a former anchor at KARE-11. The two teamed up on a 35-minute documentary titled "Dying Is Not Giving Up," a phrase Erdahl used during a series of filmed interviews before her death in August 2019. Erdahl and Grosklags sat on Erdahl's bed, her Bernedoodle, Lando, nestled up beside her, with Piatt filming.
"Death is this thing we don't talk about, but it can be a really beautiful thing," Piatt said. "Obviously there's a lot of pain, sadness, sorrow around it. But Kelly always says people can do the most incredible healing in their final moments, their final months of life. By not talking about it, we don't give people that experience."
The film has gained traction outside the medical world, winning a best first-time filmmaker award from the Vancouver Independent Film Festival and best documentary at the Tokyo International Short Film Festival.
Grosklags hopes the film can become a regular part of curriculum for medical professionals, helping them mindfully deliver terminal diagnoses, encouraging hospice as compassionate treatment, and aiding these difficult conversations about death.
In the film, Erdahl intimately describes everything from learning about her terminal diagnosis to her hopes of what her death will be like.
"She originally came to me as a way to really figure out how to live and how to die," Grosklags said.
"She had this expansiveness and awesomeness in her way to live with such dignity. She had an ability to look at things through a gratitude lens, which is not an easy thing to do, especially when you're in chronic pain and in your fifties, wanting to meet your grandchildren and knowing you won't ever do that."
There was a phrase Erdahl repeated that stuck with Grosklags: "My people, my people, my dog, my people." In her years of end-of-life counseling, Grosklags has noted how small life can get for people on their deathbeds. In that smallness, though, can come a profound clarity of what really matters in life. For Erdahl, life's little annoyances — traffic, weather, telemarketers — no longer mattered. All that mattered were her friends, her family and her dog.
"It's about what life really comes down to," Grosklags said.
What has humbled both Grosklags and Piatt isn't the critical reception of the film as much as how it's helped Erdahl's message travel around the world.
"To know her is to love her," Grosklags said. "People die how they live, and she died wanting the best from people. There's a lot of extraneous things we get wrapped up in this world. We may not put our energy in the best places in life. In the end of life, who you have is what matters most.
"The word 'dying,' it turns people off," Grosklags said.
"Judy wanted to have this hard, courageous conversation. And I have heard from hundreds of people across the nation and world where Judy gave them permission to really look at things."
Virtual Screening: 6 p.m., June 16, 2021
Register at https://june16film.eventbrite.com
Or purchase the film at: www.dyingisnotgivingup.com; a portion of film proceeds will benefit the Team Judy Fund for Metastatic Breast Cancer Research at the University of Minnesota.