There are two students sat in the corner opposite us, clearly eavesdropping as Aly Dickinson of Living Well Dying Well opens up the death cafe session by explaining how it works. As Aly encourages us to open up, talk about anything we like, and grab a slice of cake, one of the students leans over to her friend and says,
"They're talking about death."
She says the word 'death' in a whisper, slightly disgusted, slightly intrigued. I don't think anyone else in the death cafe group notices, but I smile to myself. As we discuss the social taboo around talking about death, these two young women sit a few metres away whispering about how morbid and weird we are.
I have to admit I felt a bit weird as I walked up the stairs at Boston Tea Party cafe, Exeter. It's a little out of anyone's comfort zone, I imagine, to walk up to a stranger in a cafe and say, "Hello, are you here to talk about dying too?"
I was open minded, but couldn't help but feel that the whole experience would be incredibly awkward. Thankfully, Aly and her co-host, Gina Awad of Exeter Dementia Action Alliance, made it relaxed, friendly and thought-provoking. Here are just a few things I learnt in my two hours discussing all things death, dying and bereavement.
People are surprisingly open - and it makes you open up too
If you're in any way socially anxious, the idea of having a deep conversation with strangers probably fills you with dread. What's surprising about the death cafe model is that it allows participants to open up to people you haven't met before. I found myself talking about things I don't even like to admit to myself, because the others in my group were so honest and frank about their hopes and fears.
After basic introductions, things quickly got quite profound and personal. Often people's motivations for becoming interested in end of life matters were, perhaps unsurprisingly, from a personal loss.
There's no guarded way of talking about death. Once you all admit as a group that every one of these people around the table is going to die, you're on common ground. It connects you to other people in a way that we rarely think about. After that, sharing your hopes and fears is easy.
Everyone was respectful of different beliefs
Talking about topics such as death, end of life care and bereavement means that a lot of opinions are expressed. Some people are religious, some are spiritual, some don't believe in an afterlife - and that's all okay.
In most other settings you might expect strangers with opposite views to get into a pretty heated discussion, but not so at the death cafe. Everyone was respectful of any views expressed, which helped people open up without fear of judgement. This was remarkably refreshing in a world where it feels so rare to find mutual respect despite differences of opinion.
Discussion can get very emotional
As you might expect, there can be some heavy topics introduced. My group didn't shy away from conversations you might avoid having with even the closest of friends - sudden death, the loss of a child, euthanasia, suicide.
Working for Funeral Zone, I've become accustomed to reading, writing and thinking about death on a daily basis, but it's undeniably different when it's a real person sat in front of you, sharing the story of how they lost their young child.
If I had recently been bereaved I might have found this too much, but everyone in the group was sensitive and supportive. Those telling stories were reassured that they didn't need to carry on if they didn't want to.
But it's not all doom and gloom
That said, conversation could also be quite light-hearted. There was plenty of laughter over the course of the two hours as we all got to know each other and shared anecdotes.
It was proof that talking about death doesn't have to be depressing. There certainly wasn't any pressure to keep the discussion serious if we didn't want it to be.
You end up talking about life, death and everything in between
Talking about death opened up a lot of new questions about life in general. Perhaps it's unsurprising, considering that death is such a big, all-encompassing topic. Through talking about the end of life, we also discussed having children and our hopes for them, finding happiness, and our relationships with our parents. Really, it's all part of the same conversation.
At the end of the two hours Aly and Gina brought the groups together to talk about what they had enjoyed about the discussion. Everyone agreed that the experience was liberating and enlightening. One group even commented that they all felt like old friends, despite having never met before. Talking about death really does bring people together. Let's hope more people join in that big conversation.
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