By Sandy Morris
Death is a taboo subject in America, as in many cultures, and, as such, is rarely discussed. But there is much benefit in being able to openly discuss one’s hopes, fears and understanding of mortality. Sharing a fear can undermine its power and free people to live their lives more fully.
We all must face the fact, directly or indirectly, that our time on this planet is finite as we live life. Many caregivers feel death’s inevitability as they tend to their loved ones, knowing the trajectory of the disease they suffer from is terminal.
I had a certain innocence of death until my late husband opted to go into hospice care and seek relief from his suffering through death. It was a sudden decision, and I had a hard time reversing direction, from helping him survive to helping him die. But I respected the fact that it was his life and his decision to make. And I recognized that he had very little quality of life left. As he said, he spent most of his energy trying to get through each day, and he only saw that becoming more difficult with time.
I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s had to grapple with this reality. My late husband’s sister is a caregiver to my mother-in-law. She called recently, saying that her mother had declined medical treatment for a serious condition she has developed. My mother-in-law is 88, feels she’s lived a long enough life and doesn’t want to undergo invasive tests and treatment. My sister-in-law felt uncertain about how to respond or proceed and acknowledged that she wasn’t ready to let Mom go. However, she also understood that Mom had a right to make that decision.
I didn’t really know what to tell her, but my experience with the Death Café came to mind. A place where she could share with others who might have faced a similar situation and also to try to find peace with her mother’s eventual death. A way to learn that death is not the enemy.
I attended a Death Café about a year after my husband’s death, somewhat by accident. I didn’t do a thorough job of reading the email announcing a professional networking event at an assisted living campus and went expecting something quite different.
Once there, I was a little appalled but decided to tough it out and find out what this Death Café thing was all about. I’m glad I did. It wasn’t morbid or depressing; instead it was an uplifting opportunity to connect with others over our common mortality. Being able to openly discuss this topic creates a sense of closeness, even in a room full of strangers.
So what is Death Café? Death Café is a not-for-profit, volunteer-based movement. Meetings are held in a confidential, accessible and respectful place where participants—frequently strangers—enjoy refreshments while sharing thoughts and experiences about death. It is a discussion group rather than a grief-support or counseling session. And the group directs discussions of death with no agenda, objectives or themes.
Although a facilitator is present, participants are not directed to any conclusion, product or course of action. According to the Death Cafe web site, the model was developed by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid, based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz.
You can read more on their website to learn how the concept developed in England and quickly spread across Europe and to North America and Australia. I hope that you will consider taking a chance on this experience and that it will help you live and enjoy life in the present. You can find information on where Death Cafés are held, how you can hold your own gathering, and various death and dying resources to help you on this most human journey.