Over a nice cuppa and a chat with a friend about life, death and what lies beyond was the first time I was introduced to concept of The Death Café.
“At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death.
The objective is to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.
A Death Cafe is a group directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counselling session.”
After a couple of rounds with the big “C” I suppose it was disappointingly predictable that I found myself thinking about death and dying more than I ever had before, to be brutally honest there have been some very low points over the last few years when it was all I could think about, “When?, How?, Will I know it’s happening?, Will it hurt?, What comes next?, Will I see my Mum?, What happens to the hubby, my Dad?, Who will care for my animals?…. followed by an overwhelming sense of guilt for leaving my loved ones to go through the masses of treasure (tat) I have collected over the years. I have always aired toward there being nothing, nada, worm-food, just the circle of life etc.; I’d like to say I have a strong faith or structured belief system that give me comfort, but I simply don’t know!!
It’s only when you feel more compelled to talk about death and dying that you realize that not many of your nearest and dearest share your yearning to discuss the inevitable. I admit, it probably wasn’t top of my list of conversation topics pre life threatening illness, but having your mortality unceremoniously rammed in your face makes it feel like a more relevant and acceptable line of chit-chat.
Before I braved my first visit to The Death Café I had become one of Amazons best customers….
- Dying to be me: Anita Mooranji
- Proof of heaven: Eban Alexander
- Fear of dying: Juri Hanson
- Staring at the sun: Irvin D Yalom
…. Just a small selection of books purchased during a particularly rough patch. I devoured the books taking all the positive outcomes I could, started yoga, enrolled on a meditation course and tried my very best to live in the moment, not a life skill I have an particular aptitude for – we’ll call that one a work in progress. It felt like an eternity, but eventually I got my shit together, with help from some happy pills and an amazing support network of friends and family, and am now, just about managing to keep the panic levels down to just the occasional mild hysterical outburst 😉
I decided, as suggested, to check out The Death Café’s website, saw the “Find your nearest” button and clicked… “Virginia Water Library you say?”, I took this as a sign (it’s 10mins from my home). I emailed the organizer and booked myself in… Arrgggghhhhhhhh!!!!
It was the evening of The Death Café. I started to feel a bit nervous – I’m quite shy in new social situations. I normally remedy this with beer, wine or vodka, but feeling that this may be neither the time nor the place for necking vast quantities of alcohol I arrived sober. I was welcomed by the incredibly warm and lovely Katrina, big smiles, tea and cake… so far so good. I stood back and studied the new arrivals, a sweet looking elderly couple, a young self-assured seeming woman in her early 30’s, a tall elegant Dutch lady and a handsome young man in his 20’s… not sure what I was expecting but I was surprised by the diversity of the guests. There was about 20 of us in total, all sat around a large coffee table in the corner of the library. Not sure if you’ve ever been in a library at night, but it feels a bit like you shouldn’t be there, even a little bit spooky. Katrina put down her coffee and ran through how things work, here we go!!!
“Don’t choose me, don’t choose me, pleeeeease don’t choose me”… To start with it’s like school all over again, “If I don’t make eye contact maybe I won’t be picked to read out loud”… “God I hope someone speaks soon”…. This is beginning to rank quite highly in the “Awkward life moments” category…. “For fucks sake, somebody please say something!!!”
I hear a voice piping up, thank god for that, “Oh crap”…It’s me… I surprisingly calmly explain that I’d like to become more accepting of my mortality, less fearful and free to live the life I have without the feeling of impending doom penetrating my thought processes on such a regular basis. Who knew?, I’m not alone. The reasons for attending ranged from a totally rational need to discuss the end of life as family had refused to oblige, to a hospice nurse seeking help to support her patients and their families to accept death, to a young, fit and healthy man with a crippling phobia of dying, just a few of the stories I heard that night, and it was just that, life stories, life altering events both happy and sad, feelings and fears followed by a sharing of personal coping strategies and a healthy sprinkle of laughter, warmth and support. Again, I’m not sure what I was expecting but the overall outcome for me was a positive one, and I felt strangely lighter when I left the library that night.
The Death Café UK was started up by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky-Reid based on an original concept by Bernard Crettaz, a sociologist who set up Café Mortel in Switzerland. It has since spread all over the world. The concept is described as a non-profit making, social franchise. Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky-Reid developed an online guide to holding Death Café events so that anybody interested can download and start up, all you need is to provide a confidential space, make sure people are aware that it is a conversation rather than a support group or counselling session, and most importantly, tea and cake.
I’ve always felt that we British are so very shit at death… it’s considered a morbid topic, a scary prospect to be swept under the carpet until shit happens. I feel sad that people leave this life without feeling that they can share their wants and wishes for fear of upsetting loved ones. If we are lucky we get to write it all down in a letter steeped in secrecy to a faceless solicitor; who gets what money, property or junk we’ve collected, what music we’d like at the service, what coffin, where to be buried or cremated, or even more importantly, where would we like to die, in our own home with family, in a hospice or hospital, with a priest, vicar, rabbi, rock-star etc.?
I have been involved in two funerals in the last few years that although the deaths were expected the conversation was never had, we organizers were left with no clue, winging it so to speak. We did our best, made the services beautiful and special to offer support to those left behind, but I’m damn sure I don’t want things left to my nearest and dearest, God knows what music choices would be made!!!… Just in case, I’d like to be wearing something comfortable, I want tears (not too many), joy, laughter, terrible awkward singing, but not hymns, colourful clothing, top tunes (I am compiling my playlist), great food, tons of prosecco and a massive party…got that?