This month I decided to visit a death cafe. I had no idea what to expect. The Death Cafe website listed a Monmouth county event taking place at the Quaker Meeting house near my home. My curiosity was piqued. I had to attend.
The event was slated for 7pm. As I drove toward the location I began to talk myself out of going. “I don’t need to sit for two hours and talk to people about death and loss.” This was the voice in my head reminding me that I know more than anyone else and how could I possibly learn from someone’s experiences. I turned into the drive and turned off my internal pessimist.
Let’s be honest, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I really wanted to see inside the Quaker Meeting House. It’s not the original from 1672 but it does date back to 1816. The structure is bare bones with creaky floor boards and open rafters above your head. There is a separate entrance for each sex and a wall dividing the interior space designed to continue the segregation theme, although such practices have long since passed. It is safe to say, this is a fine backdrop for our discussion.
Once inside, I found a table full of cakes to my right and a table full of people to my left. Women outnumbered men, which I expected and all of the men seemed to be in attendance for capitalist reasons as opposed to cessation. As we went around the room introducing ourselves and our raison d’être, I realized, I may have misunderstood the purpose of the Death Cafe. I imagined a place where we would talk about the healing process of living after experiencing loss, I was mistaken. Most of the participants were going through hospice with a loved one. I thought to myself, I can grab a tasty cake and run for it, or I can learn something from these lovely individuals, so I stayed. My secret skill is not listening and this proved to be a good opportunity to simply listen.
After the first hour I began to see a pattern, everyone was touching on the same theme, lack of support both emotional and physical. The children lived too far away. Volunteer’s and caregivers often left when they were still emotionally needed. The resounding problem; lack of community, family, and social structure. It occurred to me that this small death cafe was the community that was missing in the lives of these individuals. As a society we have become busy, self absorbed and complicated. We don’t know our neighbors. We don’t live near our families and the result is a lot of lonely people.
The event was administrated by a very capable Palliative nurse. She spent some time discussing her end of life doula training program. A birth doula helps a new mother welcome her baby into her life. Conversely, a death doula helps a person leave this world. It comes down to not doing but being with the person. In other words, getting to know the person behind the illness. It is a beautiful concept. If you would like to know more you can visit http://www.gentlydying.com which lists training classes and certification opportunities.
This Cafe of Death did not exactly fit my needs, however, it did teach me some new information about dying which may become useful down the road. More importantly, it opened my eyes to a flaw in our society, lack of community. Perhaps, with time, small groups meeting up in historic houses will lead to larger groups and we will continue to connect and put an end to the desolation and despair that too often accompanies the loss of a loved one.