Duality: Death Cafes during a global pandemic

Being and nothingness

Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.

– Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Being and Nothingness’

Death Cafes are led by the group. There is no theme nor agenda, though events can be aimed at particular groups or audiences to ensure inclusivity and accessibility. This means that no two Death Cafes are the same; the conversation follows a path led by the people in it. Our most recent event was online (our third online Faversham Death Cafe since Covid-19 hit). We were a group of 7 from across the world, joining from Portugal, Maine, Seattle, London and Kent. We talked about death and about non-existence. We talked of the lives and loves we do not want to lose, and of the courage it takes to connect and love knowing it will end one day. We were 7 strangers with different experiences, beliefs and culture, talking about purpose and thinking and feeling and questioning the same things. The gentle, shared humanity felt deeply connective and I had goosebumps several times during the session despite the heat of the summer’s evening.

Online Faversham Death Cafe, August 2020

We were 7 strangers with vastly different experiences in life, talking about purpose and thinking and feeling and questioning the same things.

Confrontation and avoidance: Talking about death and dying in a pandemic

When lockdown and social distancing meant we couldn’t hold our usual, cosy Death Cafes in the wood cabin in the Abbey Physic Community Garden, it took a few weeks to take the plunge and go online. Death and dying was in the news more than I have ever experienced; everyone I knew was confronted with their mortality and collectively we were doing what we could to avoid death and dying an isolated, breathless death. And yet…. holding a death cafe felt somewhat insensitive. It felt like something we shouldn’t talk about while so many people were really suffering and facing death. I was aware I was experiencing some of the thoughts and feelings that hold us back from talking about such an important topic in society for fear of getting it wrong, or upsetting someone, or for feeling the weight of any loss, grief, fear, uncertainty, relief, curiosity we may feel about the fact. It brought the taboo into focus, reminded me of the aims of the Death Cafe movement, and we started planning our first online Death Cafe.

Connection and disconnect

In November 2019, when Louise and I held our first Faversham Death Cafe, we (like everyone else) had no idea what the following few months held in store. 
So, from March this year we were unable to hold ‘in person’ groups and decided to use Zoom. I had slight reservations about how we could still create the same atmosphere online as we had in our ‘in person’ groups. I have been completely reassured as the online cafes have worked so well. People still seem to be able to make real connections with each other and from the positive feedback we have received seem to get so much from them. It also has the added advantage of people joining us from around the world which gives another perspective too, which is great.
We also held an ‘in person’ Cafe this month. We are lucky enough to be able to use a beautiful spacious garden so that we can socially distance and feel safe. This worked really well. I know there are people who may not feel comfortable with online groups so it’s wonderful to be able to offer this, too.
I’m so pleased that we are planning to continue to run both ‘in person’ and Zoom cafes so that anyone who wishes to can access our Death Cafes
.” – Roz Macklin, Faversham Death Cafe facilitator

A stipulation of a Death Cafe is that there is tea and cake. In the ‘in-person’ death cafes, this gives a bonding opportunity and common ground – passing around a plate of biscuits or sipping a cup of hot tea next to someone doing the same instantly gives a shared experience. In an online death cafe, the sentiment is just as powerful even though you will have to make your own cuppa! Talking about the lack of tea service and cake provision can be a handy ice breaker as people are getting settled – though for anyone attending more than one facilitated event online, the joke may be wearing thin now…

“I found holding a mug very comforting and grounding for the conversation.”

– online Death Cafe member

One of the collective fears that emerged and bubbled to the surface during the first few weeks of lockdown was dying alone, or being unable to be with someone we love while they die. It isn’t a new fear, but it was suddenly in the public consciousness as people were dying in hospital of Covid-19 (and other illness), unable to see visitors due to the contagiousness. The situation continues for many and brings despair, helplessness, pain, grief, anger and other angst.

Adapting to our situation with the death cafes gave the opportunity to consider how we can connect and share with one another when we cannot meet in person. Over the past months, we have shared ideas and stories of funeral plans and end of life wishes, of creative ways to communicate through video calls, letters, photos, art, nature and legacies. Perhaps one of the most valuable opportunities arising from this painful disconnection at the end of life, is the realisation that we may not always have the opportunity to say goodbye, or be with someone when we want to. Perhaps we come away from Death Cafes with more questions than we arrived with – What can we say to the people we love while they are still alive? What might we regret on our own death bed? Where can we find the courage and make the time for this while we are alive?

Love and loss

Is loving someone worth the pain when we know we will grieve them one day?

A paradox that is perhaps never going to be resolved collectively – we all have very individual responses to this question. The duality of loving and losing, of the fulfilment that comes from reciprocal love and the emptiness and isolation when that is unplugged. Described beautifully in a multitude of ways through the death cafes I have attended: a bridge with love and grief at either end. “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. We cannot have one without the other, in the same way we cannot have life without death, or happiness without sadness. We cannot have without not having.

“I definitely left the event with a heavier heart knowing the gravity and implications of death, but I also felt very comforted that there were people I could speak to about this, that there are people who muse over the same things that I do. Many of my deepest, most personal thoughts around death were echoed by people around me even before I spoke. It was wonderful to find the language and words to put together what I’m feeling. There is something about having the same feelings with the people you’re having a conversation with that makes you feel sane, supported, and brave.”

online Death Cafe member

We may not have resolved the tensions this duality brings, but sitting, talking and drinking tea together while we share in them on our individual journeys in life brings comfort and a knowing that we are not alone.

“I feel more connected, probably, by knowing for sure other people think the same thoughts… I am still struggling to understand what my thoughts on death and dying are”

online Death Cafe Member

Finding purpose in an existential crisis

An existential crisis is defined by existential psychotherapist Emmy van Deurzen as “a situation in which our entire existence and everything we used to take for granted is in the balance, so that we feel insecure and threatened.” And so perhaps death and dying is the ultimate existential crises. Collectively so in a pandemic not only because death is brought into focus, but because many aspects of life become restricted, limited, different. To paraphrase a thought-provoking lecture on Existential Courage that I attended (by Emmy van Deurzen), navigating an existential crisis takes existential courage. Everything we know is thrown up in the air, and so we are acting from a position of unknowing. This can be scary (perhaps exciting, too?) and it brings opportunity for creating something new from the rubble of what we had before. Finding purpose helps give us direction and enables us to act on our existential courage and grow and move from through a place of insecurity and fear.

Sharing a Death Cafe space with strangers has personally given me many tools to help me find purpose in navigating my own death and dying. Listening to people who hold different beliefs, who live within different cultures, with different knowledge of laws, possibilities and rituals. I have learned about what is possible in this country when someone dies: how long someone can be kept at home once they have died; how and where people can be buried or cremated or donated; ideas for the days and weeks before death including palliative care, sharing time with friends and living funerals; rituals leading up to death and afterwards.

“I know listening to other people’s stories and thoughts is bound to make my own come into a different perspective”

online Death Cafe member

These discussions and plans can help us to navigate the existential crisis of our own death, or the death of someone we love. Perhaps in sharing the planning for what we want our friends and family to do for us after we die, we enable an opportunity for continuing that shared preparation and give a sense of purpose in a time of grief.

“I was great to be able to have a space to articulate complicated ideas, or at least attempt to articulate them. It’s also reassuring to know there are these conversations happening and that people want to talk and share and embrace what is in our collective human experience to die and to welcome death or experience death as part of the journey. What makes it hard is that there is a lot of physical and emotional pain with death, and suffering with illness, but if we can find a way to talk about and provide not just medical, but emotional, spiritual, human support for each other, I’m sure we’ll have a much better world.”

online Death Cafe member

Feedback from our Death Cafes

It is always a pleasure to get feedback from people after the death cafes, to continue to learn from people’s experience and find out what works and what doesn’t. I am grateful to everyone who takes the time to share their thoughts.

It was a fantastic experience! I will be trying out a few more death cafes from different places, but I think I might come back if I can. Really, really appreciated how you, Louise, made this vulnerable experience so pleasant and safe. I always felt that I was in good hands and it gave me the chance to really experience all my emotions without being self-conscious.” – online Death Cafe member

Come along to our next Faversham Death Cafe

It has given me ‘food for thought’. I thought I might het overwhelmed and ‘crack up’ as my mother’s passing was relatively a short time ago” – outdoor Death Cafe member

It was my first meeting I felt very accepted and appreciated… I not only heard other people’s understandings, feelings and fears toward death, but I could also relate to them.” – online Death Cafe member

To discuss it [death] as open minded as we did, gave me a feeling of comfort and I was assured by that.” – online Death Cafe member

Somehow I feel a little more relaxed about [death and/or life] (at the moment)” – outdoor Death Cafe member

It allowed me to come to terms with the inevitability of my own death and challenge my fears in a logical manner by sharing” – indoor Death Cafe member

This was one of my favorite cafes so far. It has a structure, but doesn’t feel directed. Louise and Roz have such a welcoming presence, and hold the space in such a loving way, like sitting with friends for tea… even online, it feels like friends gathering…

Thank you for the welcoming space and allowing everyone the space they needed for today. It’s hard to sit in the silences sometimes, but the more we can be in the silence, the more we can hear our own thoughts, and breath. That silence is the conversation, too, just being with someone else…
 ” – online Death Cafe member

It allowed me to express inner feelings that I don’t normally talk about” – outdoor Death Cafe member

Thinking of attending a death cafe? Here are some words of encouragement from participants

If you’re attending online, and have the time, allow yourself to visit 2 or 3 to get a sense of the variety of offerings and styles. Go in with a patient and open mind, and you probably won’t be the only one for whom it’s the first time! You will be among people who are new to these conversations also. It’s also ok if you just listen, don’t feel you have to go into a Café with an agenda or an amazing idea.” – online Death Cafe member

Give it a go. You can always keep silent or drop out. This would actually be easier in an online audio only event such as ours” – online Death Cafe member

Do it!” – indoor Death Cafe member

Can I come, too?” – outdoor Death Cafe member

“[Death Cafes are an] Opportunity to be human together.”

Visit www.deathcafe.com to find a Death Cafe near you, or an online event at a time you can attend.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s