Monday, 3 June 2013

Write up of Death Cafe at the Greenhouse Cafe, Norwich by Beth Settle

Amazing poster by Phil Cooper

On the morning of Saturday May 18th, a Death Cafe was held at the Greenhouse Environment Centre, Norwich, from 10.30-12.30. Beth Settle facilitated the event, with help from Terry Wright. Beth says:

I first read about the concept of Death Cafes in an article in the i newspaper in August 2012, and immediately tore out the page. It seemed such a wonderful idea, and strongly resonated with my own attitudes towards death and dying. I've felt drawn to exploring and acknowledging death ever since I was a child, but it's not always easy to find the right person (or time and place either!) to talk about death. After visiting the and seeing that it was possible to facilitate your own Death Cafe, I was keen to hold one in Norwich, where I live.

I did a display at work (I'm a librarian and library assistant) for Dying Matters Awareness Week a couple of years ago, which first exposed me to the death awareness movement, as well as a wide variety of books on the associated subjects. My passion for death awareness grew quickly out of this, and reading books like 'Seize the Day: How the Dying Teach Us to Live' by Marie de Hennezel and Philip Gould's 'When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone' continues to open my eyes to different ways of perceiving and understanding death.

On why he wanted to be involved with Death Cafe, Terry said:

Death and in particular the discussion of it is a funny one. Some people wear their heart on their sleeve and are very open about something that will affect us all; some shy away from any such discussion and find the whole topic something of a taboo.

From my personal experience with death, it wasn't others who found it hard to talk about, it was me. I was too self conscious about making those around me feel uncomfortable talking about my own grief with dealing with death. But acting like a closed book was, ironically, what made people feel uncomfortable! Luckily, time and experience has taught me this isn't perhaps the best way to behave... that's why I feel it's fantastic what the Death Cafe is setting out to achieve and I couldn't be happier to be part of something as in important as it! Plus who doesn't like tea and cake and a good natter! - Terry

This was the first Death Cafe for both of us. The Greenhouse kindly provided us with an intimate, private room in the upstairs gallery space, and a refreshments tab based on a selection from their menu (which we would settle at the end, after collecting donations). We had fully booked for 12 attendees, thinking that we might have a few less people turn up (especially as it was a pretty grey morning). Terry and I had met beforehand a couple of times to plan and discuss, and we both wanted to aim for a very laid-back event, to be flexible and go with the flow during the Death Cafe.

This, it turned out, was absolutely the right approach to take. For instance, the very rough schedule for when to serve refreshments went out the window, as did the instrumental music in the background that was too much of a distraction. We had prepared 'conversation starters' (in the form of a couple of hats with slips of paper) in case participants found it difficult to get discussion going, or if conversation dried up. In fact, none of these were needed at all! We had also initially suggested that people might like to break off into smaller groups of 2,3 or 4, feeling that smaller groups might help build up a dynamic of trust in talking about difficult subjects, and also give more people more of a chance to speak. Again, we found this wasn't necessary...

...There were 8 attendees (including one person who'd chanced that there would be a space available on the day, spot on!) and I think the pleasantly intimate, book-lined setting encouraged the sense we all seemed to feel, pretty early on, of forming a cohesive group altogether. After going around the circle and introducing ourselves, each person saying why they'd come to the Death Cafe, what had drawn them there, we all felt we'd like to hold the discussion as one group. At that point, the arrival of the first round of drinks meant that people started having conversations with the folk next to them, springing from what had been said in the introductory, 'icebreaker' circle. And so the rest of the discussions really flowed on their own from there! People mixed and had discussions variously, although it seemed that a couple of those on very opposite sides of the circle unfortunately didn't get to speak to each other. Our refreshments were teas, (excellent) coffees and fruit cordial. We also, about halfway through, ate delicious cake, the Greenhouse Cafe's lemon drizzle cake being by far the popular choice (we ate them out of that!) but the gigantic chocolate chip cookies going down well too.

The group varied in age, gender, religious/spiritual/life beliefs and in their personal experiences of death and dying. There was a real feeling of acceptance, tolerance and respect for one another's views and experiences, and a great deal of empathy and compassion. There was also a good deal of laughter, some of which was certainly sparked by one person's story of holding his own wake some years ago!

 Although we spoke about many challenging, personal, difficult topics around death and dying, my overall sense of the Death Cafe centres round a feeling of relief: that this was a time and space for us to talk about death. We were all people who wanted to have this conversation. Many people mentioned not being able to have similar conversations with friends and loved ones. Everyone seemed to agree that dying and death is something often 'swept under the rug' but it seemed for the whole group to be an important subject to acknowledge and engage with, a part of life.

Two hours was up in no time at all - that's certainly a change that we'd make in future, as most of us felt we could easily do with another hour and were just hitting our stride.

Holding, and taking part in, this Death Cafe was an extremely positive experience. Meeting a diverse group of really lovely people who all held in common the urge/willingness to talk about a subject that is often rarely talked about. I was blown away by the depth of response, the breadth of the conversations and the willingness of people to share. Practically, the venue worked extremely well and the Greenhouse staff were all fantastic.

We received 7 evaluation forms (which I'd written based on the example provided on the Death Cafe site) - comments received about the event include:

"Diverse people, learnt a lot. Will come again."

"Well managed event. Would love to do this again."

"Wonderful - more please!"

"Enjoyed it immensely. Would love to attend again."

"Just excellent."

"Really enjoyed it; thanks very much."

When asked to 'please choose 3 words that best describe your experience of Death Cafe', participants said:

"Friendly; comfortable; respectful of all individuals."

"Excellent; open; interesting."

"Helpful; interesting; open."

"Friendly; good crowd; nice to know I am not alone."

"Friendly; relaxed; comfortable."

"Enjoyable; insightful; great to hear others' experiences/thoughts."

"Interesting; challenging; thought-provoking."

Some of the subjects discussed were: bereavement, personal experiences, soul midwifery, humanist ideas, living wills, birth, beliefs, stigma, prejudices, funerals, dying, illness, emotional issues and choices.

After the Death Cafe, Terry and I reflected on the event, and what we might do differently next time. We thought definitely a longer event, perhaps proposing certain topics (whilst still being flexible), and that it would have been good to have time to all come together at the end. We did pretty well with the donations and didn't have to put in too much cash ourselves, but thought it might be better to arrange people paying for their own refreshments in future. We also realised that I'd missed asking on the evaluation form where people had heard about the event, which would have been useful information!

Just a few weeks before the Greenhouse Death Cafe, we realised there was already a Norwich Death Cafe group, and the first Death Cafe in Norwich had been held in April. For future events we are teaming up, so watch this space! We hope to hold regular Death Cafes in Norwich.

Beth Settle

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