Our January death café happened to fall on the bitterly cold and frosty day of Donald Trump’s inauguration. But this did not stop us from engaging in very lively discussion about our experiences of death and dying, whether consciousness continues after we die, or the sensitivity of animals and birds around death and dying.
Several of us had been at the bedside of a parent during the final days, and felt it necessary to tell them that they ‘could go.’ ‘It was very strange saying it,’ said one participant. ‘I didn’t want my parent to think I was hurrying them. But they seemed to need the permission.’ Another participant had a similar experience with their mother. ‘Although she was dying, she said she couldn’t leave us. So we [her children] told her it was okay, and we could take care of ourselves. She died very soon after. She needed to hear it. It was very sad, but we all felt relieved that she finally realised it was okay to go.’
‘This happened with my father,’ said someone else. ‘Although he was clearly dying, the hospital wanted to give him life extending treatment. He had always made me promise this would never happen if his quality of life were to diminish to the point that he was unable to make decisions for himself. So, after I spoke to the doctor, I went back to him and told him what they were planning to do. Even though he was unconscious he must have heard because he died soon after. I was so relieved for him.’
‘I realised my father was struggling at the end, so I wanted to tell him that it was okay to go, too.’ said another participant. ‘But when I said the words to him, he answered me: “I know. I am trying.” It made me feel really sad for him, and it also made me understand that dying isn’t a particularly easy thing to do. It seems that the spirit, or soul, or whatever this is, is very attached to life.’
The participant went on: ‘I still regret not being with my father at the very moment he died. The nurse told me his breathing had changed, but stupidly I raced off to ring my family. I should have been with him.’
Feelings of guilt and remorse are common for many relatives who miss the moment of someone’s death. So this opened up a discussion about end of life research that shows how some people seem to want to die quietly alone. ‘The nursing staff told me to be aware that my father might want to die on his own, and to give him space,’ said a participant. ‘So I did. And I said goodbye to him every time I left his side ward. But in the end I was there when it actually happened. I can only hope that was okay for him.’
On the other hand, end of life research also shows that against all medical odds, some dying people seem to hang on for a much loved person or pet to arrive before dying. ‘This is what happened to my mother,’ said another participant. ‘Mum was really ill, so the whole family came into the hospital to say goodbye to her, together with her dog. The hospital was amazing about us bringing him in. She died after that almost straight away.’
The participant believes that the dog is going through an intense grieving process too. ‘My father says the dog is looking for my mother, and can’t understand where she has gone. It is very distressed.’
This started a conversation about the sensitivity of animals towards their owners, and also how one participant’s cat seemed to want to say goodbye.
‘My cat behaved very strangely shortly before he died. I was suffering from cancer at the time, and he used to keep me company. One day he laid down on me with his paw on my chest. I thought he was giving me comfort because of my illness, but now I am sure he trying to tell me he wasn’t going to be here much longer because shortly after he was killed by a car.’
Another participant was convinced that the blackbird, which used to visit in the garden, was the spirit of their grandmother. ‘I am sure of it. It even looked like her. I know that sounds daft. But it was a great comfort when I used to see it.’
Someone else told us about the strange experience of someone close dying, and within hours seeing a flock of different types of garden birds suddenly swoop around an empty bird feeder, squabbling with each other. ‘I know it’s ridiculous, but I am sure that the birds were kind of fighting for the soul of this person who had died, and a robin won!’
Ridiculous or not, we all agreed that there was far more to life than what we can see with our eyes. ‘Death makes us look beyond the rational,’ said someone. ‘Yes, it brings the veil closer,’ said someone else. ‘There has to be more than this physical world, otherwise it doesn’t make sense to me.’
All of us expressed as sense of awe about the dying process, the finality of the moment of death, and the sense of the spirit being released.
‘We can’t know what happens next for sure, but it feels as if something does,’ said a participant. ‘But British society does not recognise the spirit. In the Black Forest in Germany, for instance, chalets are built with a little door in the rafters, which is opened to let the spirit of the dead person fly free. It’s an accepted practice.’
Several participants told us about extraordinary dreams in which a dead parent had appeared to them. ‘In the dream, my father came through the back door,’ said one. ‘I thought, I’ll go and make him a cup of tea. It was such a comforting dream.’
Another participant told us about an amazing experience after the death of his mother. ‘I was in a car park and I suddenly felt as if my mother was standing on one side of me, and my grandmother on another. They seemed to grow fifty foot, then shrink again to normal size, and in that moment I felt part of the entire universe. There was no separation with anything. It was wonderful because I felt one with everything.’
‘I had a similar experience after the death of my father,’ said a second participant. ‘I suddenly felt as if I was part of the entirety of nature. I’ve never forgotten it, and knowing this helps me not to fear death. It made me realise it doesn’t actually exist.’
We agreed that it was sad that we live in a culture that does not recognise spirituality as an organic part of the human condition. ‘We are constricted within the rational mind that does not respect the mysteries of the unknown,’ said someone. ‘Of course we are multi-dimensional. It doesn’t matter that we don’t understand it, can’t prove it, or have no idea how it works.’
We also agreed a lack of spiritual awareness robs of us a mystical relationship with our ancestors. ‘African tribes are so respectful of their ancestry. It is who they are,’ said someone. ‘Some tribes even bury their dead relatives in the back yard. They believe that the spirits of the dead help them during their lifetime. It must be so reassuring to know they are there.’
‘I believe that conscious continues after we die,’ said another participant. ‘I think it’s extraordinary how the eyes hold onto the spirit of life until the very end. But then it’s suddenly gone, and there’s no one there anymore. It must go somewhere.’
‘It really helped when I went to see my mother after she had died. I looked at her body and thought, that’s not her. She’s not here anymore,’ said someone else. ‘I felt the same about my father after he’d died,’ said another participant. ‘It wasn’t him. It didn’t even look like him. He had gone. But I didn’t like it when I came into the room to find the nurse pressing her fingers into his eye sockets. I realise she was trying to close his eyes, but I felt it was very intrusive even though he was dead.’
‘Closing someone’s eyes in not like in the movies. It isn’t as easy as sweeping your hand over their eyes and they shut. It takes considerable effort – which is why, I suppose in the old days they put heavy pennies on them,’ said someone else. ‘But with my mother, they had obviously tied up her jaw, which has distorted her mouth. She looked very odd when I saw her. Not her at all.’
The same participant was very concerned that their mother was going to be cremated and they did not have a clue what happens in crematoriums. So they researched it on the internet, and discovered that legally a body has to be burnt within twenty-four hours after the coffin goes through ‘the curtain.’ ‘I didn’t realise this, or that ash consists mainly of bones, which is what remains after the body is burnt at a very high temperature. The bones are put through a cremulator, which grinds them down. I don’t know why, but it really helped to know this.’
With this in mind, our death café drew to a close. As always, our conversations had been enlightening and far-reaching. One participant said as she left, ‘I have loved talking about the beyond. It feeds that part of me that can’t talk a lot about these things to other people.’
That’s what these death cafes are all about.
A card game called Mortalls has also been created to help people to open up conversations about death and dying. I haven’t played it myself but it was recommended by someone who came to the death cafe.