I sat gazing at the rain through the cafe windows, heavy drops pounding down on the gutters overflowing with fallen leaves, the scent of autumn’s slow decay. I reflected on a friend’s recent response to my announcement that I was travelling to Kings Langley to help host a Death Cafe, along with friends and colleagues from St Francis’ Hospice, at Dallings Cafe in Kings Langley: “Hmm, that sounds cheery. Prefer a Life Cafe, myself”. On that grey day I could not help but wonder if she was right. Why on earth would anybody want to come and talk about death? Even if there is the promise of cake and fine coffee, it is hardly a way that most sane people would choose to spend an afternoon.
When I was working as a Community Macmillan Nurse, I would often be in the strange situation at parties and social events where a stranger asked me “so, what is it that you do?”. Apart from the fact that I never know how to answer this question (I breathe, I love, I doubt, I worry, I sleep, I eat, I crave..) I realise that this is a socially acceptable way of finding out the chosen vocation of a potential conversational partner at such gatherings, as a means of filtering out the boring, the threatening, the unethical and the just plain weird. My response that I am a Macmillan Nurse tended to lead to one of three responses:
“Ah, yes. Well. (…long pause…) Oh, there’s (so-and-so), must go and say hello, it’s been simply ages“
(What I might wish I had responded, had they not already scarpered to the bar: “I’m guessing you may feel a little anxious and threatened by this mortality salience reminder?”
Well actually, no. We nurses are complicated and messy and no more “nice” than anyone else.
“I had a really amazing / difficult / profound / awful time when my mum /dad / child / friend / guinea pig died. It was…….etc”
It is for this last group of people that the Death Cafe exists. When and where else are we afforded the opportunity to reflect on this most important topic? Rarely do we find ourselves in an environment where these subjects can be broached. People may wonder about death as an abstract idea, for example what happens to the body afterwards, or what it looks like when someone dies, or perhaps they may wish to think about how to put plans in place for their own deaths, to try and achieve whatever they conceive of as a “good” death. People may also wonder about how someone died, whether it is recently or long ago, and wish to revisit or reflect on things they have seen or done.
This last point was made evident by the first visitor to the death cafe. He sidled up to the table, a tremor in both hands. I guessed his age at around 70 although couldn’t be certain; despite his evident Parkinsonism he had sparkling eyes and a strength to his voice that belied his frail frame. He wanted to reflect on the deaths of his father and mother. His father died over ten years earlier; a stroke, followed by a slow inexorable decline until bedridden. He described his fathers’ last days in detail; the difficulties swallowing, the dry, rasping sound of his breath, then the final day – where he watched each labouring exhalation and held his own breath in the seemingly endless space before his father breathed in again. Health professionals would recognise this as Cheynes-Stokes breathing; we are patently aware that it signifies imminent death; the reduction of respiratory control to the reflexive, primitive hypercapnic drive, free of conscious control. The man described how he was uncertain as to whether to lie his father back or to sit him upright. Having decided to lie him down, he sat by the bedside and watched over the next few hours as his father drifted towards his final breath. He tells me this was ten years ago, that he has always wondered whether lying him down was the right thing to do.
Another man arrived. He also had a tale to tell. His story was about a death that happened sooner than expected, his wife, of a futile resuscitation attempt on the bedroom floor with his 13-year old son standing witness. He wanted to tell his story, he told me, because he had three wishes about his own death: that he would have control over who would be present at the end, that he would be supported spiritually and emotionally. and to be able to make decisions in advance. This last was because he would not want to have had the resuscitation that his wife had, nor would he wish for anyone to have to witness it. Other folk came and went; some peered around the corner, reminding me of how difficult people find it to begin the conversation, even though once they have got started it becomes easier to discuss. Some sat and listened, some joked (my father, for example, who decided he was not planning on departing this mortal coil until he has sailed the Atlantic single-handed). People talked about what songs they would choose for their own funeral; this led to long discussions about songs which represent you, about the mood you would like to create for your funeral guests. The chosen songs were added to a playlist and played over the hum and murmur of conversation. Tracks were chosen that evoked memories, made people chuckle, made people cry, made people head-bang, imparted words of wisdom – Leonard Cohen, Led Zeppelin, Flaming Lips, along with Nina Simone and Lynard Skynard.The numbers of visitors was not large, but those who came left enriched and energised, enquiring about future events, thanking each other for the opportunity to speak honestly and openly. And the Dalling’s Death Cafe was not simply a chance for people to talk; for me, it was a reminder of the normal everyday yet utterly invisible place in everyone’s life that is occupied by thoughts of death. It was a reminder of work still to do. There remains a deep need for support, and open and honest conversations with people who are faced with death, for the health professionals who encounter it daily, for the bereaved millions who walk around with unresolved questions burning inside. People seem to benefit from this brief permission to allow death awareness in, to let it seep into everyday parlance. It is only death awareness that will ultimately enrich our appreciation of the precious and brief gift of life we have all been given. For more information, go to www.deathcafe.com