Over tea, I came face-to-face with my own mortality.
I used to work at a retirement home. I was a waiter and yes, it was a very glamorous job, thank you for asking. All the little old ladies gave me hugs and we’d dance when they came down for dinner. I used to tell people it was like being a professional grandson. I was 23 years old and I was having a ball.
The thing is, a retirement home is often the last place someone lives before they pass. So people tend to die. And during my third month of work, one of the residents, Cheryl*, passed away. I was pretty upset. I hadn’t thought about the ramifications of working at a senior living community. (Remember: I was 23, so, you know, dumb.)
Over time, I realized the concealment of death was by design. When a resident died, management made a point to hold the memorial in a side room, away from foot traffic. They also placed a small picture in a side hallway, out of the way, with a tasteful sign that read “In Memory of Cheryl.” When I asked my manager why the picture wasn’t placed near the dining hall, or at least in a spot where more residents could see it, I was told, “Oh, we don’t want to remind the residents of death.”
Remind them of death?! Da fuq??! Have they never heard of it? Do they know where Cheryl went? Are we telling the residents she’s on a farm with all her childhood pets? Can I go to the farm? No? I have to know somebody who works AT the farm? What kind of farm IS THIS?!
Even now, I’m struck by the absurdity of how my colleagues and I, a group of adults, camouflaged information from another group of adults. The residents hadn’t forgotten about death. They weren’t children; they were aware of their ages and the natural course of life cycles. In fact, it could be argued that it was management who was afraid of death, not the residents.
On one hand, it makes sense. Most people don’t want to talk about death. But I do.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Where’d you go? Hang out for a second?—?this is a discussion worth having. In fact, judging from how scared shitless we are, it’s long overdue.
Pulling up a chair at death’s table
I decided I’d head to a place where the topic of death was not only encouraged, it was the only thing on the menu: Death Cafe, a not-for-profit discussion group that meets once a month and is open to the public. Its objective is to “Increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” Death Cafe is an international organization with groups meeting in over 40 countries across the globe.
“When I usually bring up Death Cafe to people I know, they always say, ‘Ooh, isn’t that a morbid subject. Why would you go to that?’ They just don’t want to deal with it.”
The Death Cafe closest to Chicago, where I live, is in Evanston. Participants meet once a month at the Levy Senior Center. From the moment I walked into the facility, it was clear the attendees all knew one another quite well. I took my seat among the friendly faces and spent two hours of my Friday talking about a subject most people desperately attempt to avoid.
We began by exchanging names and pleasantries. My favorite introduction came from Hannah, a Holocaust survivor, who told us, “I am 88 years young. I drive a car that is 25 years young. Four cylinder, cost me practically nothing.”
Then we got right down to it?—?or in Death Cafe parlance, “the deep plunge.”
Why are you here?
Evanston’s Death Cafe was a small group: just six regulars, all of whom were roughly 40 years older than me. They spoke of death quite frankly, and each had his or her own unique perspective on and relationship toward death. As we went around the table, I began to feel this wasn’t just a way to talk about a morose subject?—?it was almost like group therapy. Not because we were all deep in the throes of grief; in fact, it’s important to note the Cafe makes no claim to be a grief-counseling group and advises those battling with the loss of a loved one to seek professional help. But Death Cafe does provide a safe space to discuss a topic that is largely pushed to the sidelines by society.
The members of our group became involved for a variety of reasons. One man said he began to contemplate his own mortality when the last member of his family passed away. One of the group’s organizers, Steven, is a retired registered nurse who became involved after his experience working in hospice care.
“I dealt with many people who wanted to die at home with family but 90% of them died in the ICU,” Steven said. “And they had lost control. It was really heartbreaking in many cases. So I wanted to do what I could to try and inform and educate people.”
“There’s such a pervasive fear about it, so when you can come together and openly talk about something that’s scary for many people, I think that’s helpful.”
The common thread among the members’ experiences was that death was on their minds and they didn’t want to hide from it any longer. They were senior citizens and they wanted to be prepared for what lay ahead. They were ready to address the pitchfork-toting elephant in the room.
“But aren’t you afraid to die?”
This was the question I asked, point-blank. I must have sounded like a quivering child left out in the cold. Without batting an eye, Hannah retorted, “I’m not afraid to die. I’ve had many experiences which were interesting in the sense that I could’ve died. But I consider myself a cat with nine lives.”
She went on to tell a story of doing hard labor at a camp while a Nazi officer monitored her. Clearly this woman came face-to-face with the reality of her own death long ago.
Another member, John, said the first time he contemplated his own death was when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“All I can remember then is seeing the first chemo come down the tube and go into my arm,” John said. “Then I realized: There’s a possibility here that this could be the end.”
These people had been having this conversation for almost two years now and they had reached a frankness that felt enlightened. At one point, Steven said, “Everything is impermanent.” Their age and wisdom allowed them to take a view of the subject that transcends Western society’s relentlessly somber, gravestones-and-caskets depiction of death.
What good does talking about death do?
But won’t talking about death place an unnecessary focus on the inevitable tragedy that will befall us all? That’s been the conventional thinking for years, but Steven believes that in discussing death, “…it comes out of the closet. I think that you become more comfortable with it…There’s such a pervasive fear about it, so when you can come together and openly talk about something that’s scary for many people, I think that’s helpful.”
One of the organizers, Suzanne, said her friends and family don’t quite understand why anyone would want to talk about death. “When I usually bring up Death Café to people I know, they always say, ‘Ooh, isn’t that a morbid subject. Why would you go to that?’” she told me. “They just don’t want to deal with it.” But Death Café’s international success proves people are interested in taking away the power death has over all of us by discussing it in an open and honest forum.
Planning for the end
We plan everything in our lives. When we purchase a car, we compare prices, we go on test drives, we call up our cousin who knows a lot about cars for advice and we even ask Hannah how many cylinders this make and model has. Yet when it comes to death, mum seems to be the word.
The irony of it all is, if you don’t have this hard talk, there’s a good chance your loved one will lose the opportunity to have the best possible death.
Steven said, “The worst time in the world to make a life-and-death decision is when your loved one is in the ICU and they can’t breathe [or speak] …that’s why people end up in the ICU and dying there. Because those discussions didn’t take place and those decisions weren’t made. And there are more and more ways to pre-decide all of that.”
Many of us are not ready to have that discussion. If you’re lucky enough to have two parents who are alive and well, like mine, it can seem difficult and painful to explore the topic of mortality with them. Even the thought of my parents dying easily brings a tear to my eye. (What?! I’m sensitive and I love my parents, BIG WHOOP.)
But talking about it before it happens can save so much pain and agony during the final days and moments of a loved one’s life. Organizer Suzanne admits, “A lot of adult children aren’t comfortable talking about it with their parents. I remember when my parents moved to Florida. They were in their 60s at the time and they wanted to have that discussion with me and I was in my 20s. I burst out crying and I said, ‘You know what? You’ve got the wrong person to talk about this with.’”
If you’re not ready to talk about it yet, that’s okay. People need to come to the table (or cafe) on their own terms. But Suzanne urges older parents to revisit the conversation with their reticent adult children. “Keep bringing it up to your kid, because at some point they might be comfortable talking about it,” she advised. “It’s a heavy thing to think about your parents dying.”
Death is personal and should be dealt with gracefully. I’m not saying you should bust into your loved ones’ room shouting, “Hey, I’m ready to talk about you dying now!” But the plain terms in which Death Cafe members speak about this macabre affair are so wonderfully refreshing, I would urge anyone interested to attend next month’s meeting. If you’ve been toying with the idea of death and don’t feel as if there is a place in your life for you to speak freely on the subject, go.
If you’re like me, you’ll leave feeling more open and ready to live life. Because, as Steven put it, “We’re in this life for many reasons and one of them is to learn how to die.”
*All names have been changed to protect privacy.