Reflections of a Death Cafe facilitator

I held my first Death Café in September 2014, and since then have held them on a regular basis each month in various locations around Sydney.  At a Death Café, people from all walks of life, often strangers, gather together to talk about end-of-life issues.  While I facilitate the group, discussion is always group directed, agenda-free and takes place in an open, warm, respectful and inviting forum where everyone attending can express their views safely and without fear of judgment or ridicule.

In my experience, neither age nor gender is a barrier when it comes to talking about death, and in the time I’ve been running Death Café attendees have ranged in age from as young as 13 to folk in their mid-80’s.  While men do attend Death Café, they are generally in the minority and are usually outnumbered by women, and while there are ‘regulars’ who come and go, at every Death Café I’ve held, there are always first-timers who attend.

There are many reasons for people wanting to come to Death Cafe, but one of the most common is that people just want to talk about death without fear of being perceived as ‘morbid’, ‘ghoulish’, or ‘depressing’.  Sometimes people have had a near-death experience which they want to explore, sometimes someone close to them has died and they’ve experienced after-death contact with the deceased, some people are curious or have just always been interested in death and the possibility of an afterlife, and some are looking for ways in which they can have death-related conversations with either friends, family, or in the case of medical professionals such as nurses or medical students, death-related conversations with patients and their families.

Contrary to what you might think, Death Café is not sad, morbid or depressing, in fact it’s the opposite; affirming, validating, and comforting.  Conversation is profoundly meaningful because people explore their mortality and their attitudes toward death in an environment and forum where nothing is off the table, which can be quite liberating.

For example, at one Death Café, some attendees talked not so much of death and dying, but of their fears for those left behind while others shared their experiences of being present at various deaths.    One attendee articulated that people have to be made aware of death so as not to be afraid of it and shared a story of taking her two young children to view a full-term still-born baby, kept beside it’s mother in hospital, while another attendee, speaking softly, shared her out of body experience when after an accident she watched the doctors operating on her in hospital.  After recounting a particularly poignant account of the death of someone close, and becoming quite tearful and apologising, another attendee said matter of factly, “It happens” which resulted in a round of laughter from everyone present.  Yes, death does happen!

Another attendee shared some of her experiences of being present with the dying, commenting on the things that people do to let you know when death is about to occur, which brought back memories of the death of my own mother and what she did.  Another attendee highlighted the importance of understanding the language used by the dying as death approached, and of knowing how to be present in that context with them. We also talked about how we would like to be “sent off”.  Some preferred cremation, one longingly talked about going out in the style of the Vikings!  We also compared the death rituals of other cultures with our own Anglo Western culture, which so often sanitises and medicalises death.

In reflecting on my experiences of Death Café, people do want to have these conversations, young, old and in-between.  I can’t say that I’ve noticed an increase in young people, say for example those in their teens twenties attending, but that could be a result of how I advertise and promote the Death Café, which is usually via social media or a mail-out in which previous attendees receive an email advising them of the upcoming event. Globally, humanity is at a tipping point and death, which is never far from our door, is much closer to us because of our technology; distance is no barrier to news of acts of terror, natural disasters and civil unrest.

I think that death makes us think about life.  It makes us think about how we are living our lives, about what we are living for, and about what our purpose is.  Asking oneself, “Why was I born?” is a fundamental question which we should challenge ourselves with.  Death is a certainty, but we are not born simply to die, there is a purpose to our birth, and we need to discover for ourselves what that is.


Michele T Knight Written by:

Dr Michele Knight is a Social Worker, Social Scientist, researcher and independent scholar. Her interest and research in the end-of-life has its origin in the lived experiences of her own bereavements, her near-death and shared-death events, the returning deceased and attitudinal responses to those experiences. Since 2006, she has been extensively involved in community development, support and advocacy in both a professional and community services/voluntary capacity in the areas of bereavement and grief, hospital pastoral care, and academic lecturing/tutoring. Her PhD, Ways of Being: The alchemy of bereavement and communique, explores the lived experience of bereavement, grief, spirituality and unsought encounters with the returning deceased.

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