Indigenous program uses humour to demystify dying

Friday, 08 July, 2022

Indigenous program uses humour to demystify dying

Indigenous comedian Sean Choolburra is the voice behind a new QUT-led animation series that uses humour to help demystify and destigmatise palliative care and dying for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The QUT-based Indigenous Program of Experience in Palliative Approach (IPEPA) developed the animations to educate and entertain communities and health professionals in a grassroots way about palliative care, serious illness, grief, feelings and pain management.

The IPEPA Project Director, Distinguished Professor Patsy Yates, is a nurse and recognised leader in palliative care research. She is co-director of the QUT Centre for Healthcare Transformation and Executive Dean of the QUT Faculty of Health.

Yates said content for the IPEPA animations was led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and drew on cultural strengths and perspectives. “Using humour to communicate about dying was a risk, but communities let us know it played an important role in their resilience and was the best way to engage people,” she said.

The animations feature hero ‘Sean’, voiced by Girramay, Kalkadoon, Pitta, Gugu Yalanji man Choolburra, who embarks on a journey to understand palliative care and explores different aspects of what happens when people are diagnosed with a life-limiting illness.

Indigenous comedian Sean Choolburra.

Choolburra said he did not know about palliative care before the passing of his mother in 2020. “I was yarning with Mum one week and the next she was in palliative care. I didn’t know what palliative care was,” he said. “I thought that you go in, you get alright and you get out.

“We only had a week or so left, but palliative care allowed me to prepare for Mum’s death and say my final goodbyes.”

Choolburra said talking about his mum’s death in his comedy shows was a part of his grieving and healing.

“It was still hard to talk about my mum passing because she’s your mum, but also because it’s sorry business and other people are grieving.

“I turned my grief into a routine where people didn’t know whether to cry or laugh because it was so funny.

“In one skit I talk about doing up Mum’s grave. I got ideas from Better Homes and Gardens and went to Bunnings for gardening stuff, bark, rocks and baby emu statues.

“There was a sale on solar garden lights, but when they all lit up around Mum’s grave it looked like a tarmac. I heard a plane behind me and realised the cemetery was right near the airport.

“Comedy can help take the heaviness away from grief and deflect the main component of death.”

Yates said many people in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities were unaware of services available to them, misunderstood palliative care or had unresolved grief and loss that made it difficult or taboo to talk about death and dying.

“Through consultation with communities, we learned that the passing of a loved one can re-traumatise Indigenous communities and disconnect people spiritually and physically from each other,” Yates said.

“Knowing a loved one was fulfilled and had everything they wanted can reduce conflict and emotion caused by their passing, so the community can instead focus on healing.”

Yates said the IPEPA animation scripts were developed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, palliative care workers and health professionals with experience in a range of healthcare settings. She said the IPEPA team would use the videos to support palliative care education to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and health professionals.

Designed and implemented in collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the IPEPA is part of the national Program of Experience in the Palliative Approach (PEPA) funded by the Australian Government Department of Health that delivers education and training for healthcare provider groups across primary, secondary and tertiary settings.

Through specialist placements and workshops, it builds the capacity of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous healthcare workforces to provide high-quality, holistic and culturally responsive palliative care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their loved ones.

“IPEPA aims to build capacity of the non-Indigenous workforce because it is largely responsible for delivering good palliative care to Indigenous communities,” Yates said.

“We support people to change a potentially distressing experience of serious illness into a healing experience that is grounded in sovereignty, dignity and self-determination.

“We work with communities so people have knowledge of services, understand their rights and the decisions they are able to make at the end of life.”

To learn more about IPEPA, visit:

The full IPEPA animation playlist can be viewed at

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