Cabin’s Eye, photograph by Sheree Stewart Combs
Lessons from the Death Café
There are about 13 of us, including Heather, one of four facilitators. She begins the session with some history and a general overview. With an easy smile and blondish hair that falls slightly below her shoulders, she looks nothing like I imagined. I guess she is about fifty years old. It becomes evident within minutes that she is confident and upbeat, not at all what one would expect of someone who organizes an event focused on death.
Less surprising is that I fit the dominant demographic of the group: my screen displays pictures of mostly white women with varying degrees of graying hair. There are a few exceptions: two young men and a couple of younger women.
Soon we are assigned to breakout groups of just three or four, to help foster discussion. My group’s facilitator asks a question to get us started: “It’s easy to think of bad things about death,” she says. “But can you think of anything good?”
She offers her answer first, something along the lines of, “a good thing about death is that it helps us appreciate life, it helps us to be more mindful of how we spend our time here, because we know our time is limited.” It is an answer that stays with me.
A few months before the pandemic began, one of my oldest friends died. Lisa had been my roommate for three years of college and the year following graduation. We believed that we got along so well because we were so different. She never left our apartment without mascara on her lashes and color on her lips. I was hopeless with makeup, all tinted sunscreen and lip balm. Lisa dressed in silk and fur, even to go to class. I favored cotton sweaters and jeans. When I did dress up, I often felt like I was in costume.
By middle age, Lisa had two children and had been married three times, while I was childless and didn’t wed until I was 43. She left New Jersey for Florida, while I remained in Boston. Yet even with the different lives we led, and after the span of years and distance, Lisa and I talked often–about her marriage woes, her career changes, the demands of my job in publishing, my efforts to get myself “out there” to search for true love. She was the one person with whom I could share any thought or wish, no matter how embarrassing or shameful.
After I married, we didn’t talk as often. But I attended her father’s funeral, and we always sent holiday cards and spoke on our birthdays. Our last call was in June 2019, when she turned fifty-nine. I was planning to retire the following year, and I said I’d visit her in Miami.
“Can you believe we’re going to be 60?” we asked each other, never thinking for a moment that one of us would not.
She never mentioned she was thinking of a facelift, but six months later, that’s what killed her. Cardiac arrest on the operating table. Her sister told me she was on life support for two weeks before the family said, enough.
My sixtieth birthday was the first in thirty-eight years without a call from Lisa. The world was three weeks into a pandemic. I was fortunate to be able to stay mostly at home, but there was no escaping the fact that I had crossed a line. I was now in the high-risk pool—people over sixty, the new threshold for “older people.”
I’m sure I was not alone in conducting internet searches about the virus, my chances, and death and dying. When I hit upon the Death Café, I couldn’t resist clicking the link.
The concept began in Europe in 2011, the objective being “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” It is not a bereavement group or a support group for people at the end of life, nor an end-of-life planning event. It is meant as an outlet for participants to talk about their thoughts, questions, and fears about death and dying.
Upon reading further, I found a Death Café in Massachusetts, and I contacted Heather, who has a background in hospital social services and hospice care and has been organizing these monthly meetings for a decade. In a phone call with me, she explained that, prior to the pandemic, meetings were held in person, with cake and coffee provided, as in an actual café (though without charge). During the pandemic, the meetings, like so many other events, went virtual.
“People come for a lot of different reasons,” Heather told me. “Some come out of curiosity, others come back quite often because every time you come, you get something different out of it. There’s no agenda or scheduled conversation. You come because there’s no other place to go to talk about death.
“And it’s very life-affirming,” she added. “It’s the opposite of what you might think. People think, ‘oh, it sounds like a bunch of Goth people getting together and it’s all gloom and doom,’ but that’s not it at all. Usually, the conversations are very upbeat. There are certainly moments where people are expressing sadness or grief, but generally, to have these conversations is empowering. When you talk about death you can’t help but think, ‘what is it I want to do with my life?’”
Feeling obliged to speak in my small breakout group, my thoughts turn to an experience I had as a 40-year-old graduate student. In a required public-speaking class, we were assigned the task of writing and delivering our own eulogy. Most of my classmates were in their early twenties, with their whole lives ahead of them, so the instructor said we could make up the details.
I tried writing it factually, but the thought of dying, feeling like I had accomplished so little in life, left me sobbing at my kitchen table. Still, I remember part of what I wrote in that first draft: “When death is imminent, there is no fear.”
I’m not sure how I came to that conclusion, or if I believe it now. That first raw draft cleared the way for me, like a palate cleanser after a bitter taste, but there was no way I’d have been able to deliver it in class. Ultimately, I got through the assignment by writing a fictional version of my life. (I bumped myself off with a case of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which I acquired while eating beef offal on a grand tour of France. My biggest challenge was delivering the speech with a straight face and in a tone solemn enough for the occasion.)
In the Death Café breakout group, I share just the outlines of this story, the part about how disconcerting it was to think of myself as no longer here. Our group comprises two women older than I, one young man, and a woman who could be in her mid-thirties or early forties. The younger woman’s husband had died within the past year after a long illness. We spend a lot of our time talking about the finality of death, how hard it is to imagine and accept. How shocking when it happens, even when not unexpected.
Zoom flashes a warning that our breakout group will end soon and we’ll be brought back to the full meeting. Our facilitator poses a final question: “How would you complete the sentence, ‘Before I die I want to…’?”
Some years ago, the artist Candy Chang painted that phrase on the side of an abandoned building in New Orleans and installed blackboard siding to enable anyone passing to fill in the blanks. Dozens of her neighbors responded, writing their hopes and aspirations on the side of the building in colorful chalk. The effort has now spread to other cities and countries. In a TED talk about the project, Chang mentions being inspired in part by a loved one’s sudden death. “Thinking about death,” she says, “clarifies your life.”
I scribble “Before I die I want to…” in my notebook, wondering how I could possibly choose just one thing. Wondering, too, what Lisa would have written.
I read recently that the people of Bhutan believe if we think about death five times each day we will be happier. No doubt that has something to do with the state religion, Buddhism, which holds that upon death we will be reincarnated to experience life again in some form.
I want to believe that, but it is difficult to completely sever myself from my Catholic upbringing. Some days I still believe in Heaven and Hell. Other days I believe it all just ends. We are no more, but we don<’t know it, so what’s the big deal? I think about what Lisa must have thought when she read the surgical consent form, the one that says anything can happen, even death. She likely laughed it off, thinking only of a future Lisa, waking up more beautiful than ever. Then she signed her name for the last time.
In June 2021, near what would have been Lisa’s sixty-first birthday, I attend my second Death Café Zoom call. This is a bigger crowd, so I mostly listen. The discussions are confidential, and I respect that. The group includes repeat attendees, some who have recently lost loved ones and, like me, are wondering about the great mystery of what follows death. Of course, no one can provide an answer, but the meeting stays generally upbeat.
I probably will not become a regular visitor to the Death Café, not yet anyhow, but I am trying to put into practice what I’ve learned. In my initial phone conversation with Heather, she emphasized how we, as a society, celebrate birth with classes and books and parties. Death is not joyful, as most births are, but like birth it is something we will all experience. Why not think about it? Why not talk about it? We sure cannot laugh it away or hide from it forever.
For now, I remind myself to appreciate the privilege of aging, the privilege of wrinkles that my friend wanted to erase. I am trying hard to believe my thought from twenty years ago: When death is imminent, there is no fear.