Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Standing room only at Calgary’s First Death Café

By Wendy Kurchak

It might have been the half- page article about Death Café that appeared in the Calgary Herald the day before Calgary’s First Death Cafe, it might have been the article “5 Facts about the Death Café” in an event magazine the week before, or it might have been that Calgarians were waiting a long time to talk about all things death; whatever the reason, the 35 registered guests at Calgary’s First Death Café crowded around tables to eat, drink and chat while more than a dozen last minute hopeful drop-ins left with invitations to attend Calgary’s next event – standing room just doesn’t work for a Death Café. It all took place, March 10th, in the peaceful workshop room at Self-Connection Books, one of Calgary’s best resources for books about death, dying and grief.

The café kicked off with Carol Beecher introducing the internationally acclaimed animation she created with partner, Kevin Kurtynik, “Mr. Reaper’s REALLY Bad Morning”. The dynamic 17-minute film stimulated an intriguing Q&A, as well as lively chat in the ensuing small group discussions. One particular table debated how a personification of death might appear to the dying i.e. as a grim reaper, or an angel of light – fascinating conversation.

Across the room, other guests discussed what they would like to have written on their gravestones. The diversity of ideas all reflected a hope that their final epitaphs would reflect meaningful and fully embraced lives – a great example of the underlying concept of Death Café.

The small table conversations were imaginative, open, enthusiastic, and accompanied by laughter and tears among the guests who ranged in age from 21 to over 80 years old. Topics included issues of suffering, helping, funerals, rituals, regrets, life affirmation, grief, retrospection, cremation and whatever else the participants brought to the tables.

We broke at mid-point to help process the feelings accompanying the dialogue by moving around, drinking water, and eating more homemade cake; everyone gathered back to new groups at different tables.

Most participants embraced the break and the change into new groups as shared on the evaluation forms:

“Awesome discussion topics. A safe and welcoming environment!”

“Change mid-way thru – perfect! Timing in each group was perfect.”

“Changing groups was critical. I would have liked equal time in each group”

“Enjoyed changing groups and sharing experiences”

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to converse with multiple people”

The second half of the café began with a brief reading from the OMEGA Journal of Death and Dying (Vol.66, No.1 – 2012-2013) about an old married couple discussing the right to die with dignity. Some groups chose to start their discussions along that vein, while others chose their own topics, or selected ideas from the list of “Table Topics” on each table which included ideas such as:

What do I want done with my body once I’m dead? Do I want to donate any usable parts?

If someone told me that I only had 2 months to live, what would I really, actually do?

When I die, will I "be" with my dead pets? Dead family members? 

We ended the Sunday afternoon Death Café with a reading about suffering and compassion from His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 

“Before we can generate compassion and love, it is important to have a clear
understanding of what we understand compassion and love to be. In simple terms, compassion and love can be defined as positive thoughts and feelings that give rise to such essential things in life as hope, courage, determination, and inner strength. In the Buddhist tradition, compassion and love are seen as two aspects of the same thing: Compassion is the wish for another being to be free from suffering; love is wanting them to have happiness."

The Death Café guests left with left-over cake and cookies; as my Mom says, “It’s always better to have too much than too little.” I think that at Calgary’s First Death Café, we all received more than we expected – and not just cake. I’m still wondering what I want written onto my gravestone. In fact, I’m wondering if I want a gravestone….

What’s next in Calgary?

Well, Calgary’s Encore Death Café, on May 12th, is already full with more than 50 people currently registered. To accommodate the larger number of guests, we’re moving to a brilliant new location – the Nexen Living Room at the Sage Center – the community outreach facility of Hospice Calgary!

The June 9th Death Café still has about 10 spots but there’s another community newspaper article coming out soon about Death Café, and we expect that that date will fill up soon.

In the meantime, for more information about Calgary Death Cafes, please check out the Death Café website, or my blog edingrief.blogspot.com, or email me at wendymariek@gmail.com


Wendy Kurchak

CT (Certificate Thanatology), B.Ed., B. MusA., DipN (Nursing) DipEd (Guidance)

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