Death: A coffee conversation
The event notices for a “death café” had no doubt raised a few eyebrows in Annapolis Valley – it certainly did when I shared my evening plans with some friends. While I was initially attending for work, the evening had taken on a different meaning as the next day I’d be travelling to Newfoundland to see my 87-year old grandmother, whose health had recently declined and whose death was on the horizon.
“We are all experts here, we all have experience,” said Tim McFarland, as he welcomed the approximately 40 people in attendance at a local Kentville cafe. McFarland, who is chaplain at Acadia University, was on hand to lead the discussion and share his own experience. “I journey with people as they are waiting for death. I try not to be morbid, though…dying is the one thing we all have in common.”
It wasn’t a typical setting for this type of conversation, which was purposeful on the part of the Valley Palliative Care Team. “Death and dying are challenging subjects to approach, so it’s important to make people comfortable and to give permission to openly talk about our hopes and fears,” says Fern Brydon, manager of Hospice, Palliative Care and Continuing Care. “We want to help remove the stigma and taboo around death and make these conversations more common.”
As I deliberately and awkwardly sat off in a corner, I was fascinated and humbled by the insights and stories people shared. Their openness and eagerness made some of my own discomfort disappear.
“Dying really sucks.”
“I don’t fear death but I really fear dying.”
One gentleman quoted Woody Allen, "I'm not afraid to die; I just don't want to be there when it happens."
Who knew there would be laughter in the midst of a conversation about death? It continued, along with some deep conversations as participants connected with each other at their tables, over coffee and tea, sharing the questions they have and experiences that have shaped them.
Brydon says the success of the death café and other events, such as end-of-life planning sessions, demonstrate the need for these conversations. “Bringing topics like death and dying out into the community is a great way for people to explore what it means for them and to help shape their approach to these topics with their families and loved ones. It’s not always easy but we’re not alone in it.”
My trip to Newfoundland was difficult. My grandmother (Nan, as I called her) was facing death, her body letting go after years of living with dementia. As I sat with her, I knew these would be my last moments shared with a woman who had been a major influence in my life.
Two weeks later, I got the call from home that Nan had died. Among the tears and precious memories of my vibrant and fun-loving grandmother, I took comfort from the café conversations I’d listened to weeks before over a cup of steaming hot tea.
Nan, a life-long tea drinker, would have thought it fitting.