Beyond the Headlines
By Jeanne Davis
Each month our resident writer and commentator Jeanne Davis goes behind recent news stories to comment on various ideas and subjects that have special resonance for our age group.
Written in her usual thought provoking and entertaining style, we know you will enjoy this addition every month
DEATH CAFES: At death cafes, people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death.
After writing about death cafes the past few months, I have now attended one for first-hand experience. And what a worthwhile experience it was.
We gathered on a balmy October evening in an upstairs room at the Café Rouge in Hampstead. There were 30 attendees, the average age was 50. The women ranged from 26-82; the men 50-82.
At first glance it could have been a neighbourhood gathering to discuss a proposed project – a school playground, a campaign to keep a library open, new recycling restrictions. But we, mostly strangers to each other, had gathered here to talk about death.
While sipping tea or coffee, or wine you could order if you wished, we were asked to introduce ourselves and briefly tell why we had come. At my table, there was a retired psychiatrist, a young neurologist, a songwriter, a hospice worker, a woman who had been a physiotherapist, but was now a lawyer studying the law on assisted suicide. And a management consultant.
The retired psychiatrist asked if we could help him with a current problem he was grappling with. He wanted to sort out an accumulation of a lifetime of articles he had written, of family photos, of files on subjects that interested him. What should he leave for posterity, what would be of no interest to anyone? He had also decided he would put all these mementos on memory sticks, a tidy way of leaving little clutter.
The group was sympathetic, but did want to make some suggestions. I thought it would be a pity to digitalise the photos. It was always so illuminating on shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? to look at the old photographs of generations ago, faded but evocative, making those forebears so very real. Without the physical evidence in your hand it would be a different experience.
An actress said she was now surrounded by boxes and boxes of her mother and father’s memorabilia. They had both died a year before leaving all their possessions in situ. She was an only child left with the sorting to do. She was not happy about it.
The topic that connected everyone was given to us by the facilitator: How did we envision our own death, what would we like it to be? The answers were as varied as the individuals. All agreed that they did not want to suffer in pain too long. Ideally they would like to have six weeks to put their affairs in order. One 82-year-old said rather smugly she has already done this as she was in her advancing years.
As to whether we wanted family or friends or both to be with us at the final moment, some did want to be able to say goodbye to their children to tell them of their love and that they didn’t mind going. The young neurologist said he planned to control the whole event. He would invite his closest friends, play wild and loud rock music, offer drink and at the moment he chose he would pick up the morphine needle he had close by and expire peacefully into the night.
The hospice worker, who had seen so many at the end of life, was calm and not afraid. “I am a Christian,” she said. “I will be waiting for all of you in Heaven.”
Guilt reared its troubling head. The management consultant told the story about his father’s last days. Visiting his father in hospital for what seemed like an extended stay, he became bored and told his father he had to leave but would be back the next day. His father said “Won’t you please stay a little longer.” He didn’t and when he got the news the following day that his father had died, he was fraught with remorse. The hospice worker offered some comforting advice. “We do what we do at the moment,” she said. “You didn’t know he was going to die.” What if he hadn’t died the next day? After 14 years of guilt, perhaps he derived some comfort from this thought.
When asked by the facilitator: “What did you appreciate about the event?” Most agreed in the words of one attendee that it was "the relaxed ambience, the instant rapport at our table, the honesty of the discussions and the listening courtesy of the participants.”
“I have an incurable and aggressive cancer,” wrote another participant. “I found it liberating to talk about my death and wishes for my death to strangers who were so open to talking about the subject. I did not experience the same emotional constraints compared to talking to people I love and who love me.”
For the mother whose 18-year-old daughter had died five years earlier, it was a relief to talk about her feelings. “I could come here and feel comfortable sharing thoughts.” Her husband, fearful it might affect their younger daughter, found it too difficult to talk about their irretrievable loss.
It was life-affirming, too, concluded others. I had concerns and was searching for answers. I have gone away with some useful thoughts, especially on making the most of my finite life.
To date: there have been 170 cafes held throughout the UK. To find out more go to www.deathcafe.com.
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