Yep. Talking about death and dying can be a tough conversation. I recently visited a “Death Cafe” where a discussion about death and dying was frank and open.
But “fascinating” best describes the candor and compassion of the two-hour conversation.
The idea of a death café has intrigued me since learning about it a year ago. As an elder mediator helping families resolve disputes concerning an older parent or relative, I wanted to see how willing people are to talk about this often closeted topic. I was pleasantly surprised. The nine of us talked about dying and death, both personally and objectively.
Begun in England several years ago, death cafes are informal gatherings of individuals who talk about death and dying from all vantages. A hospice worker organized the first U.S. death café. Surprised by how willing people were to discuss death when they heard about her profession, she decided to organize one. “People,” she explained, “have a need to talk about death.”
The facilitators stressed that people’s remarks should remain confidential, and that the café is a safe space to talk openly and candidly.
We first explained why we were attending and then asked to complete the sentence: “Death is ___________.” The one-word replies included “transition,” “ painful,” “ peaceful,” “ necessary,” and so on. Next, we focused on “contradictions in our thoughts about death.” While I couldn’t think of any, someone suggested that suicide has its contradictions. While a person committing suicide may think he or she is ending their physical or emotional pain, they rarely consider the pain their suicide will inflict on others.
Another topic explored what we want to do before our death. Answers broke into two categories: one on travel; the other on accomplishing something, whether it is gaining inner peace, fulfilling a life mission, or seeing one’s children succeed.
Throughout I observed a sense of “permission giving.” Once one person shared her feelings about, say, the death of a loved one, others felt free to jump in. Conversations ranged from the intimate to the humorous, from the loss of a child to contending with different ways of planning a funeral.
The café ended with a feeling of commonality: we saw that we could share with strangers some of our deepest concerns about death and dying; and we garnered new perspectives on a topic that most of us had seldom or even refused to discuss.