I have been to a few Death Cafes, but this week was my first try at hosting one. Fortunately I had some very supportive helpers who could be relied on to cope with anything that turned up. In the event I needn’t have worried – my anxiety that no-one might come was ill-founded, and around ten people gathered for a couple of hours of conversation.
One of the “house rules” of Death Cafes is that what is said there must remain confidential – quite rightly, as only with this assurance will most people feel safe enough to talk about deep feelings. So I cannot share here the specifics of what was talked about: only to say that the discussion never flagged, that there was a good deal of humour alongside some sad stories, and I for one (yet again) learned a huge amount.
We were people who in most cases hardly knew each other, yet here we were sharing memories of profound experiences, and having the luxury of being listened to with great attention. One person did point out how different this was from the usual conversations at the pub or a party, and why was it that our mortality was such a conversation-stopper in those circumstances? In reflecting on this question afterwards, two things struck me.
The first is that as human beings we need stories. We are ceaseless story-tellers to ourselves and to others. In the pub or party, our stories are usually anecdotal – perhaps someone describes an amusing misunderstanding at work, which others then build on with their own similar tales. Or one person present has just been to a remote part of the world and had some unusual encounters, which they share with their friends.
This to and fro of relatively light conversation, and perhaps banter, is part of the social glue which reassures us that we are “at home” in our culture and relationships, and is often the foundation of friendship. But we need stories in other ways as well to help us make sense of the big events of our lives. This is especially true of encounters with death. Death remains mysterious, and being beside a dying person can be a profound experience which goes beyond words. Being creatures of language, though, we feel a need to find the words to tell the story to others. And because death almost always involves strong emotions and talking about it can reveal our deepest feelings, these are stories that just don’t fit the pub (except in rare instances).
That’s one reason why Death Cafes have proved so popular, I think – because they are saying that it’s OK here to tell that kind of story, where welling up or even tears won’t bring awkward silences or a rapid change of subject. That’s the first thing. The second is that the moments of sharing so often bring with them a sense of encounter with others which, too, is beyond words, but which is hugely affirming and therefore therapeutic. We have been listened to as we have spoken, and often we know that those who have heard also understand to some extent, because they have been there too. We go home feeling we have been in touch with deep truth and at the same time closer to one another.
More Death Cafes on 6th and 13th October, and November 6th – details under “Events” on this website.