01 Dec Let’s Talk about Death
Last night I attended my first Death Café in Boston Spa, West Yorkshire.
A few Death Cafés have been held in Glasgow, this year The Glad Cafe have held a few, Final Fling held two in the Gallery of Modern Art, and my colleagues in Health Improvement North East Glasgow have held a couple of these type of cafés in Parkhead. In my new temporary role as Health Improvement Senior, Thriving Places, I have been asked to support the development of this in North East Glasgow, with a particular focus on those bereaved through suicide or through drugs or alcohol use.
I had never been to Death Café before and, as I am now going to be supporting the development of cafés like this in the North East of Glasgow, I wanted to go along to one to experience it for myself.
My understanding of a Death Café is that it is a safe and friendly place where you can relax, eat cake, drink tea and talk about any and all aspects about death.
The Death Cafe model was developed by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid, based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_Cafe. I contacted Helen Green to arrange to attend their first Death Café through the Death Café website http://deathcafe.com/ which has a directory of Death Cafés as well as a great deal of information on what exactly Death Café is.
Helen arranged for me to meet with Pat Brooks before the Death Café started. Pat was there to facilitate their first café as she is an experienced facilitator of Death Cafés. The venue was The Oasis School of Human Relations in Boston Spa. The Oasis School of Human Relations is a radical not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the development of individuals, groups and organisations http://www.oasishumanrelations.org.uk/ .
Pat is an interesting and heart centred person with much experience of death and of facilitating Death Cafés, all of which she readily shared with me. We talked for over 45 minutes sharing experiences, thoughts and feelings around death, very quickly I found myself feeling connected to Pat and knew I wanted to stay connected in some way.
The Death Café itself brought up a whole array of differing feelings as I listened to each person’s short introduction of themselves. When it came my turn, I explained why I was in Boston Spa but unexpectedly I found myself finishing off by stating ‘I don’t want my parents to die.’
My parents are, as far as I know, quite a number of years away from death, my mum is only 66 and my dad is 74 years old. But earlier this year, for no apparent reason, I had a sudden realisation that my parents were going to die and for the first time in my life I really felt a deep sense of loss and fear in relation to the prospect of losing my parents.
I have experienced a few deaths of people I have worked with. There was one young woman who died at the age of 17 years old in hospital after a drinking binge. At the time I was only a young woman of 26 myself. I will never forget her, she was a beautiful person with such a kind heart, who always listened to Tracey Chapman’s Fast Car album on repeat! But she was caught in a cycle of self-destruction as she struggled to cope with living, she was deeply traumatised by what she had experienced as a child.
She had survived so much and now it was her turn to really start living. When she died, I remember thinking how unfair life was, that she didn’t deserve to die. I went to her funeral along with some other workers and I remember asking the universe ‘Why her?’ I was angry and upset, it didn’t make any sense to me and to this day it still doesn’t. Every time I hear ‘Fast Car’ I think of her.
I reflect on this now, this was my experience of losing someone who I worked with, albeit closely, but not a family member or friend, and I try comprehend the depth of what other people are feeling. I have not experienced many deaths of people close to me. I have lost all my grandparents but it was only my Dad’s parents, that I really knew.
I went to see my Nana and Grandad (Dad’s parents) after they died and attended their funerals. They both had long lives and, to be honest, after Nana died I was relieved as she had said, on a number of occasions in the year before she died, that she wished she were dead. I knew Nana had wanted to join Grandad, she had always seemed lost without him. Despite this, I still grieved the loss of them from my life as I remembered past memories of my earlier years with them.
Nana and Grandad had been important people in my life. I often used to stay with them during half terms and holidays and they always used to make such an effort with me and my brothers, taking us to the beach with picnics and we always had the most wonderful teas, with a variety of delicious homemade cakes. Those times will always stay with me as from the age of 8 years old I was a full time private school boarder as my Dad was in the army, which meant I spent two thirds of the year in an institutional environment with no emotional care, which made these holidays even more special and important to me.
When my cat, Luna, died nearly 8 years ago, I experienced intense grief which took me by surprise, this lasted about a month or so. This was a strange experience as many people do not understand how important animals can be in a person’s life and certainly I found it very difficult asking my work for some days off to grieve.
Luna had been an integral part of my life, she had come into our lives when my son, Sol, was only 13 months old. Luna and Sol developed a special type of bond which was very obvious by the fact that Luna would let Sol pull his tail over and over again without scratching him, he seemed to know he was only a toddler. So when Luna died, when Sol was 7 years old, we lost Sol’s constant companion and a part of his and our life was gone.
The Death Café experience was heart opening and liberating. I am the type of person who loves meeting people and talking deeply about many things, so this café provided the perfect opportunity to do just that, with Death being the focus. I cannot share any of the other people’s experiences from that café as that is one of the most important aspects of the Death Café, that people can talk about absolutely anything with no fear of it going beyond the safety of the café walls.
What I am able to share is what I learnt from others. I learnt that even with the most devastating loss of a loved one, the pain of loss is always there, but people are able to carry on living, and can really thrive. If people are able to talk openly about their loss and others talk openly to them about their loved ones’ death, then they feel able to start living again.
I connected to my own fears and concerns about being cared for in care homes towards the end of life. I considered this in relation to my parents and myself. I discussed my earlier life experiences of working in a nursing home where I upsettingly witnessed a lack of care and respect for the residents, by various so called ‘Care’ Assistant colleagues. I reflected on how our society seems not to value our elders, unlike other cultures where the elders in the community are respected as the ones who hold much wisdom and this wisdom is shared with and listened to, by the younger generations.
In a short amount of time much was shared but it all seemed to come to an end too soon and there were so many other people that I had wanted to connect with. But it felt good to be part of this Death Café.
The experience will stay with me and I now have a real passion to continue these conversations. I did not go looking for Death but what I can see is that in 2016 Death came looking for me. I feel now that there is no time like the present to talk about Death, to welcome it into my life, to make it part of our lives, because whatever our experience of Death so far, one thing we can be sure of, is that we will all meet Death at some point.