A wonderful spring day welcomed nine of us on board Mystic Moon for the April 21st pop-up death café, at the top of Bradford on Avon’s lock.
I can’t believe it’s just over a year since I ran the first pop-up, that time moored below the lock beside Bradford on Avon’s stunning 14th century tithe barn. This recent pop up is the sixteenth I have run so far, although two of them during the winter months took place on land (one kindly hosted by Janelle, who runs Earthworks School of Healing, at her Avoncliffe home in October 2015, and I ran another in February for counsellors at the Cotswold Counselling offices in Cirencester).
I am continually amazed by the range of conversations that take place. Sometimes, as with the pop up at Avoncliffe, a theme will emerge. Everyone in this particular group knew someone who had ended their life through suicide and wanted to talk about the emotional complexities of dealing with it.
Several participants spoke about how difficult it was to talk to relatives, or
to find a way of supporting relatives who might not want to acknowledge or speak about what had happened. One participant said that she had known the person who had ended their life since childhood and wanted to be at the funeral, but was not made welcome by the family. ‘I found that really hard,’ she said. ‘This person had been my friend for so many years, and I wanted to be there to say goodbye. But the family made it clear that they didn’t want anyone else there.’
This led onto a conversation about shame and guilt that relatives and friends often feel when someone ends their life. ‘You feel so helpless,’ said one participant. ‘I still feel I should have known there was something very wrong, and done something to stop them,’ said another participant. ‘But what I could have done, I don’t know. They wanted to go and that was it.’
Someone else commented that the stigma surrounding suicide is heightened by the language used to describe it. This person has worked with a number of families who have experienced suicide of a close relative. ‘People still say someone has “committed suicide.” This sounds as if they have committed an illegal act. In my experience, families hate this because suicide it not illegal. It’s far better to say, ‘someone has ended their life, or someone has taken their life. It reduces this stigma.’
The group agreed that coping with the repercussions of suicide was a very difficult and painful process, which stays with relatives and friends for the rest of their lives. ‘I will never forget them, or what they did,’ said one participant. ‘But I hope they are at peace. That’s all one can hope for.’
For more information about dealing with the aftermath of suicide, please go to: Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide.
The Cotswold Counselling pop-up in February provided an opportunity for counsellors to come together to talk about working with people who were dying and those who are grieving. But the conversation inevitably turned to their personal attitudes to death. ‘I find it hard to admit I am going to die,’ said one counsellor. ‘I know this is ridiculous, especially when I am working with people who are bereaved.’
Another counsellor said that they felt that they deepened their work with clients when they had accepted their own mortality. ‘I think if you accept you are going to die, you can open yourself up to the client in a different way. ‘ Someone else said, ‘Talking like this normalises the fact I am going to die. It gives me more confidence to actually mention the word “Death” to people I work with.’ ‘Yes,’ agreed another counsellor, ‘I think it’s very easy to tiptoe around the word “Death”. Talking about it openly is so helpful and in an odd way, reassuring.’
‘I think we are all fearful of dying,’ said another counsellor, ‘so being able to actually admit to it, and to be with other people willing to talk about it is quite freeing. I can already see how it can help with my client work.’
This brings us to the pop-up café on 21st April, and possibly one of the most eclectic groups to squeeze onto Mystic Moon in order to talk about death and dying over tea and cake.
Perhaps our diverse life experiences and age range (from mid-forties to eighty-four) meant that no particular theme emerged. Rather we discussed a rich variety of topics, from what it might be like to actually enter the dying process to the importance of making an Advance Directive. We also talked about why it is so important for our spiritual development to have these profound conversations. Most of us couldn’t actually put the reason into words, but we just knew it was. ‘It helps you to let go,’ stated one of the older participants. ‘Letting go helps you to find peace of mind. To get rid of all that unnecessary clutter. That’s what is important to me now I am in my later years. It helps me to get ready.’
Another participant talked about her job working closely with the dying. ‘It’s very strange to actually have a career in end of life care. It stares me in the face every day, but I don’t often think of my own death, which is equally strange.’
This participant also spoke about the difficulties that a dying parent has when trying to tell their child about what is happening. ‘They often just can’t do it,’ said the participant, ‘so the child or children have no idea that their parent is about to die. So much thought and work needs to go into finding a way that helps and supports everyone involved.’
One participant admitted to her fear of dying. ‘I’m not ready,’ she said, ‘so the thought is terrifying. I have so many regrets from my past, and I know I need to look at these before I can accept that I am going to die one day.’
This led into a conversation about the concept of what makes a ‘Good Death.’ ‘You read about this all the time,’ said one participant. ‘But it makes me think, “Oh God, not another test to pass.”’ ‘I agree with that,’ stated another participant. ‘It’s yet another expectation to GET IT RIGHT. And, what happens if you don’t have a good death. Does this mean you’ve failed dying too?’
The café drew to a close with all the participants asking for more. ‘I feel we’ve just begun to scratch the surface,’ said on participant.
I agreed with her. Death cafes are an opportunity to come together to talk about what really matters, and it’s amazing how a group of complete strangers open up so quickly and effortlessly together, and form such a tight, trusting bond in such a short space of time.
If you want to find out about a death café near you, The Death Café website provides a list of venues and dates. An alternative is to run your own!
If you want information or support on how to set one up, please do not hesitate to contact me.