This pop-up was requested by four psychotherapists, three of whom were about to enter their final year of training.
What a delightfully enthusiastic group. The trainees came with paper and pen, ready to take notes, but these were soon cast aside as they opened up to their own personal experiences of death and dying.
We talked about a wide range of topics, so I will be just highlighting the main points.
None of the group had been to a death café before, and had been surprised by the reaction of friends and family when they told them what they were doing.
One said it had helped to open up a conversation with a close friend who spoke about a funeral that she not previously mentioned.
Another said that when she told her friend about it, the friend looked aghast, saying ‘How weird.’ ‘She couldn’t get her head around why I would want to do something like this,’ she laughed. ‘But she was certainly curious to know what it was going to be like.’
‘Saying I was going to a death café certainly sparked interest, even if people were a bit dubious,’ said someone else.
This opened up a conversation about why many people are so reticent to talk about death and dying. ‘Maybe people know they have unresolved issues, so talking about death is too frightening and threatening,’ said one participant.
Another said, ‘I think a good death is about being at peace with who you are, and what you have done in your life. If there are things you’re ashamed of or feel guilty about, that’s bound to affect how you die.’
Two participants were trying to open up conversations about death and dying with their parents who were in their mid sixties. ‘My parents don’t like talking about anything that really matters,’ said one participant. ‘I’m ready to the conversation, but I know they aren’t. I am not sure what to do about that.’
Another said, ‘I have this romantic notion that I will be at the bedside of my father when he dies, and he will turn to me and say what a good daughter I have been, and tell me how much he loves me. But in reality, we have a very difficult relationship so I know that’s not going to happen, nor is the conversation that I want to have with him.’
This led into a discussion about how people are often eulogised after they’ve died, which has little bearing on how they behaved in life. ‘I suppose we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,’ said one participant.
‘It’s difficult when you don’t like the person who has died,’ said another. ‘You have to choose your words very carefully so you don’t upset people.’
‘I didn’t like one of my parents at all,’ said one participant. ‘Even though I knew it was not the done thing, when people came up to me at their funeral and said, “I’m so sorry”, I said, “I’m not.” I could see the shock and sadness in their reaction, but I couldn’t lie about it.’
‘But,’ she added, ‘I was with them when they died, which helped to heal the rift, and I know they live in me because I see their features in my own face when I look in the mirror. That’s strangely comforting.’
One participant spoke about two young men she knew who had died, and how their deaths had become tragic romantic symbols for some female friends. ‘Suddenly, these young women were saying they had been their girlfriend, but the young men’s parents had no idea who they were.’
‘It seemed to give these girls status in their eyes of their peers. It made them appear older and wiser, as if the death of this ‘boyfriend’ separated them and made them special.’
The discussion turned to the importance of saying goodbye and the role of funerals. One participant spoke about the suicide of three close friends.
‘Although I found it very sad, I actually respected their choice. That has helped me come to terms with what they did. But the parents of one of them couldn’t bring themselves to tell anyone what had happened. They held a private funeral, so none of us could be there. I still find that difficult. I wanted and needed be with other friends who had loved them and say our goodbyes as a group.’
This sparked off a conversation about how many people are aware of their mortality. ‘I don’t think many people think about it,’ said one participant. ‘But I think we need to. It’s the one thing that’s guaranteed to happen in life and we can’t control it.’
Another told us how she had been very ill as a child and had had a close friend who died aged ten. ‘It made me realise how mortal I was, even at that age. His death made me want to suck up life. I still struggle with my health, so, in a way, I face death everyday. But I think that helps my work with HIV people, and it certainly makes me more compassionate.’
Our café was beginning to draw to a close when one participant told us that she was about to have a very difficult conversation with one of her best friends whose twins had died at birth a few days ago. She had no idea what to say to her, and was understandably nervous about getting it wrong and making things worse.
None of us had the answers for what to say. There is no formula for situations like this. ‘It’s about just being there for her, in whatever way it works for her,’ said one participant who had supported her own friend through the stillbirth of a baby. ‘She probably won’t even know what she wants, or even what she feels for a long time.’
‘The partner often gets left out when this happens, because the focus in naturally on the mother,’ said another. ‘So it’s vital that they both get the support they need.’
‘I think it’s about climbing in with them,’ said someone else, ‘and going with whatever they need day by day. That’s all you can do.’
We all admitted to feelings of helplessness. However, having spoken for the past two hours about life and death, it helped us to put heartbreaking events such as the death of a baby into a wider context: death is part of life, and however tragic, it is an integral part of our life stories. It makes us who we are.
One participant summed up the afternoon by saying, ‘Coming to this death café, and hearing each other’s stories makes me realise that everyone has a story. That’s very comforting.’