It takes the whole of life to learn how to live, and – what will perhaps make you wonder more – it takes the whole of life to learn how to die.
growing closer to loss
Until my wife and I both welcomed our daughter and ushered her out of this world within the span of a month, I had had little personal experience with death or loss.
I grew up far from extended family. I had no close relationships with older adults such as grandparents, and so their deaths did not affect me very strongly. As such, I had not really observed much death or loss until residency.
Nonetheless, in residency I frequently led end-of-life care and goals of care discussions. I was good at them, able to connect with families and patients, elicit their values, and move care in the appropriate direction.
I found the discussions gratifying. It always felt like important work – real doctoring.
In clinic, I felt many of my patients were lost or stuck in regards to their physical and mental health and often life in general. I did not have an inherent understanding of how people ended up in these states of life-limbo. Over time, I came to feel that it was related to loss and our relationship to it.
As I did not have much personal experience with loss, I took to reading about it. In particular, The Illness Narratives gave me a framework about how to understand the nature of repetitive loss and eventual death as a clinician. This clinical research was a helpful backstop when faced with confronting death in my own family. At least I had a framework.
death becomes him
Moreover, because of my clinical background in loss and death, the behavior and lack of acumen of my partners shocked me. Compassionate and attentive clinicians with their patients, they were emotional ogres when it came to a fellow clinician. I have since learned this is unfortunately fairly common in medical culture.
Our wider culture’s inability to engage with death shocked me less, but was still striking. When grieving, even well-meaning people mostly just want you to feel better. Your grief is disquieting and the assumption is that if they say something to make you feel better, everything will be ok.
Announcement: When someone is grieving, everything is not okay. Yet, that is natural. That person’s world has been unmade, and they are relearning how to live in it. It is supposed to be difficult and sad – that’s normal. As a bystander, this is what you need to know.
My experience led me to seek out venues of personal healing, but also how to engage with the wider world about death. We need to be better at this. Our culture cannot afford – both materially and spiritually – to continue to view death as as optional – something to avoid. This is how I stumbled upon Death Cafes.
Death Cafes are simply groups of people who want to talk about dying, death, and life – to demystify the experience. The movement started in 2011 in Britain and has spread around the world.
my first death cafe
So, I found a Death Cafe in my area and decided to go, not entirely knowing what to expect. My wife agreed to come with me, though she was a little reticent. Of course, we showed up late, sliding into the circle surreptitiously.
The circle was bigger than expected, 20-30 people. A few were veterans, a few more had come only for the second time, and many more were first timers like us. It was heartening to see it so well attended. People were from their early 20s to their 80s. The group was overwhelmingly female.
We went around the circle introducing ourselves and our reason for attending. One man had simply been sitting in the area of the bookstore the group reserved and decided to stay. Others were wrestling with their own grief, their own mortality, or simply had a desire to have a discussion about death openly and freely.
After introductions, one young woman erupted with emotion. She had suddenly lost her father to cancer about 18 months prior. They had been extremely close, he had been her rudder in the world.
Her grief and anger and a sense of injustice continued to possess her. She was trying to learn how to evolve. Her family were unequipped to have these discussions, so she was looking elsewhere.
She came to a room full of strangers, looking for answers. It was a courageous act, to engage with her emotions and death openly and honestly. It was plain to see she was struggling. The group did not recoil. Collectively, everyone leaned in, nodded, and listened.
As someone who has been through a great grief recently, it is hard to overstate how rare this experience is in modern America – to have strangers engage in your grief with you, without discomfort. It is otherworldly, almost magical, especially in contrast to everyday life. Even 10 years ago, this space did not exist.
the flow of conversation
The rest of the conversation flowed in an easy back and forth, remarkably civil and deep given the current public discourse in this country.
We touched on differences in how men and women deal with death and emotions, how you go about buying urns before you die, the fear of death and dying, and impermanence in general. We came back to Gina’s grief once or twice.
In the end, we went back around the circle and people where able to express one or two thoughts they had not had the chance to express during the open discussion. Overwhelmingly, people were simply thankful for everyone showing up, sharing, and being open.
My wife and I left feeling remarkable uplifted, even more alive. It had been intense, Death Cafes are generally held monthly, and I am not sure we could handle them more frequently. Nonetheless, the experience had been life affirming, not morbid in the least.
everything gets a return
The great Stoic philosophers had a phrase for this: Memento Mori. Seneca and others recommended a daily practice or remembering and accepting death as a way to remind ourselves of our wondrously short lives and that nothing is guaranteed.
They argued the practice increased happiness because to helped us live our lives more fully. I have not adopted the daily practice, but if it is anything like what experienced after my first Death Cafe, I think they were on to something.
Our culture is out of touch with Death. We close it up, hide it, shaming public expressions of grief. The daily practice of remembering and accepting death is a big ask in our current culture.
However, an open space to confront death in community may be a good place start. This is what Death Cafes provide, a welcoming community of people on different stages of the journey towards knowing and accepting to death. The experience was remarkably life affirming – I know we’ll be back.
Questions? Thoughts? Please comment below.