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My experience at a Death Cafe

I did something completely out of the ordinary on the weekend. I went to something called a Death Café.

My mother died when I was just twenty-two. Those first few hours, days, weeks and months following her passing, were grief-fueled and overwhelmingly sad. Mostly because she was only fifty-one. Well-meaning people would repeatedly say ‘taken way too young.’

I wish I had celebrated the fact she had lived and rejected the feeling of ‘this has been done to me.’ Mum’s funeral was awash with tears. People stating what a wonderful woman she was – whilst at the same time leaving me to wonder who the hell they were. Black dresses and dark suits: heads bowed in reverence. It was a few months later, when these faces were long gone, that I realized what a performance a funeral can be. It’s the routine: someone dies; send a card; go to funeral; go back to life. It feels too easy. Or the alternative – never, ever mention it. Refuse to think of death. I am curious about alternatives to our traditional western world view of saying good-bye.

I know one thing - I don’t want hordes of people at my funeral. Only the few who I either birthed, loved, or stood by me as a loyal friend. Not the people I knew from sport, not the neighbours, and definitely not work colleagues. I wonder if this ‘pay my respects’ thing is a contractual exchange one wagers with themselves. If I go to their funeral, then others will come to mine.

At this point, you are probably thinking, where’s Kerri’s usual whimsical musings? Her upbeat blog of old? It is not my intention to judge anyone’s religious or spiritual beliefs about death or traditional funerals. I just want to write about something that people may not have thought about: that we can have input into what happens in death, as we can in life. We can be part of the conversation.

The Death Café group I attended was a safe space facilitated by a doula, but essentially it consisted of group members outlining experiences around death, dying, planning for dying, challenges of funerals and even the miracle of not dying. People shared their feelings of guilt, shame, anger, grief, loss, rage, despair around death. Others shared feelings of knowing their loved ones were now without pain or mental anguish. They expressed relief, acceptance and smiled when they spoke of their much-loved friend or family member. Some people spoke of their plans they have laid out for their children and grandchildren to follow. One was clear he was leaving a list of ‘invited attendees’ for his funeral service. Wow – you can do this? Well, it beats the alternative that someone else offered - that they were leaving an envelope for a particular person (should they turn up). Upon entering they would be handed the envelope and inside would be four words – fuck off, go home.

It was truly a privilege to listen to all offerings. At times the discussion leant on the philosophical side, and at others it became theatrical. We laughed as well as shed a tear or two. For me, I walked out of the session feeling lighter. Feeling that I had taken a positive step in what I want in life AND death. Plus, I left with so many practical tips to protect my loved ones. There is so much I don’t know, because funerals are one of those ‘yucky’ topics that people don’t want to talk about. I walked away with new knowledge and ideas.

I’ll go again next month, and maybe the month after that. The challenge of remaining buoyant when my eighty-two year old father surfs from medical issue to medical issue, is constant. He is down-trodden and beaten in a way that makes a paradox of the word ‘living’. He is not living, he is dying slowly. But, for him, not fast enough. He has said many times over the last few years, if he could take a pill and never wake up, he would. This is tough to hear. But, at the same time, I see why. The photo below was taken in better times.

I can’t believe I have written this content in my post this week. I was truly inspired by my experience at the Death Café. Doing my best as a writer, means I’ve proofread and edited this document. I wondered if I should leave in my feelings about funerals. I know the tradition of going to a funeral is borne out of respect. I don’t want to sound disrespectful – I only have my own experience of burying my mother to go on, when I think of it as a performance. Too many people attended that day, that have never crossed my dad’s or my siblings’ paths again. Why go to a funeral if you are not there to care for the one’s left behind? Even if it is just a phone call?

I would love to think my post might kickstart a conversation. Even if it’s a conversation with yourself. Or, talk to others – even find a Death Café. You will be surprised to find death is not a ‘yucky’ word after all. There was a lot of empowerment and joy in the room. Simply amazing.

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