I have purposefully not published this blog until the Winter Solstice. The Solstice is about the bringing back of the light. I believe death cafes do just that. They bring people together to shed light on the darkness and fear of death. So, this blog is to wish all of you who read it a happy Solstice, and to remind you that even in the depth of winter and in the depth of whatever darkness you may experience in life, the Light is always there, waiting for you.
November is a cosy time to hold a pop-up death café on Mystic Moon. The sun was already sinking as seven participants clambered aboard to be warmed by the heat of the stove.
I was particularly delighted to welcome three men to the café, one of whom was also a boater. The youngest of us was around late fifties, and our eldest, a very spritely and engaged eighty-five year old, led the way by opening up a conversation about what it will be like at the very moment of death.
It was interesting to discover that although most of us were strangers all of us had often thought deeply about the moment of death, and this was an on-going process. It also emerged that all of us had either read Buddhist texts on death and dying, or went on regular Buddhist retreats, or practiced Buddhist meditations, which focus on the importance of releasing fear and attachment as a preparation for death. Our collective, although very individual, interest in Buddhism quickly bonded us together.
All of us held some kind of belief in an afterlife, in the sense that something far greater exists than what our limited human understanding can perceive, and this increasingly calls to us as we age.
One participant described it as Love with a capital ‘L’, and believed it provides some kind of profound teaching as the end of life nears. The participant spoke about how their meditation and prayer seemed to thin the ‘veil’ between the seen and unseen worlds, and had witnessed this thinning as their parent died. ‘I felt as if my father had one foot in this world and one foot in another world that I couldn’t see. Even though he was unconscious, I felt he straddled these two worlds until he was ready. It was as if he needed the time it took for him to die to prepare himself to let go.’
‘I want to be there when I die,’ said another participant emphatically. ‘I want to be fully conscious of each moment so I don’t miss anything. This is going to be the biggest thing that’s happened to me since I was born, so why miss out on it?’
‘I think it’s tragic that our spirituality, especially the spirituality of our dying process, fails to be nurtured in our Western culture,’ said someone else. ‘Death is usually medicalised in some way, which is good if it’s about managing pain, but the deeper experience of death is virtually ignored. Instead, people either turn to the default of what they know, which is the religion that they grew up with, or they have no faith at all. These religious rites at the end of life are not what they want or believe in, but because they have no spiritual tradition they don’t know what they need.’
‘The moment of death is extraordinary,’ said someone else. ‘Where do they go? That spark of life? One minute whatever makes them who they are is definitely there, but the next minute its gone. Will I know when I am gone?’
‘It’s such a privilege to witness someone life coming to an end,’ said a participant who has cared for several dying people. ‘This person, with all those years of living life just as all of us do, doesn’t physically exist anymore. I find thinking about that very humbling because that’s going to happen to me one day. I won’t be here anymore. It stops me from taking life too seriously or thinking I am so damned important.’
This sparked off a conversation about the fear of having regrets at the end of life, and not having the time to put things right. ‘At the end of life my life I don’t want think I have only had a life half lived,’ said one participant, ‘so I often test myself. I imagine I have an hour left and see what’s important to me or who I urgently want to talk to. Then I imagine I have under half an hour to live and assess if my priorities have changed, and they usually have. For example, if I only had a few minutes left I won’t be calling my mother, because I feel that would be an obligation – I ought to do it. But I would most certainly be calling my children to say goodbye.’
‘I am consciously getting rid of things I no longer want or need as part of dealing with any regret,’ said someone else. ‘I moved a little while ago, which meant I symbolically and practically cleared a lot of stuff out of my life. But I still have too much, so I am continuing to clear it out. Who wants to be left with a load of my junk, which they don’t want? I feel that as I continue to clear out my life, I am consciously preparing for my death. Anyway, I can’t take it with me!’
Several participants spoke about regrets in a different way. They all had had a difficult relationship with a parent, and their regret was about the relationship that they were never able to form. One participant said, ‘I was with my parent when they died, but my grief and regret was about how my parent was never able to express love to me. I waited at the bedside as they died hoping they might say something – like they do in the movies – but it never happened.’
‘I am determined that will never happen with my children,’ said another participant. ‘But my most painful regret is that my step-parent stopped me and my siblings from seeing my parent’s body after they had died, and I had to fight to go to the funeral. I am still deeply hurt by that, and I use my Buddhist practice to help me to come to terms with it.’
Another participant talked about the regret of being estranged from their sibling from an early age. ‘We seldom saw each other. But when my parent died it felt as if whatever had kept us apart wasn’t there anymore. I now have a sibling again, but I regret those lost years when we could have done so much together. We don’t really know each other.’
‘I think our ageing process is the time to deal with all these issues, so we can let them go,’ said a participant. ‘That’s what I am doing. As I grow older I place prayer at the centre of my life. It gives me comfort and stops me from being lonely because I feel as if I am being supported and nurtured by something far greater than me.’
We moved onto talk about Armistice Day that had happened on the 11th November, few days before the pop-up death café, and the despair some of us felt about humanity’s seeming inability to stop killing, maiming, murdering and torturing each other. ‘I won’t wear a poppy,’ said one participant. ‘I feel I am condoning war if I do.’ Others disagreed. ‘For me, a poppy represents remembering all those who have been killed in combat,’ said a participant. ‘It’s sobering. I think that’s very important.’
‘All these conflicts makes me think of how important it is to prepare death, ‘said another participant. ‘None of us know when it’s going to happen. We could all be involved in some kind of conflict tomorrow, so I want to be ready.’
‘I think the only thing you can do to prepare for what life has in store is to make your end of life wishes clear,’ said a participant. ‘I have informed my GP what I want and don’t want to receive as end of life care, and I have given my children and a sibling a list of all the names and phone numbers of my friends who I want to be informed of my death. I have also given them my bank details and all my codes so they can access my mobile phone and my computer. This gives me a profound sense of peace.’
Our café drew to a close, and yet again the participants expressed gratitude for having the opportunity to talk about these important issues that all of us face as we travel through life. ‘Don’t put off dealing with regrets, or letting people know what you want,’ said a participant as they put on their coat. ‘Otherwise it will be too late.’