Death cafes help ease fear of dying

Manitoba death doulas hold discussion groups where people can share their personal experiences with dying and death

Society has traditionally treated dying as taboo, which is what the organizers of Death Cafes are attempting to counter.  |  Getty Images

The Death Café approach to starting conversation about death and dying is a relatively new concept to hit southwestern Manitoba.

Compassionate people like Christine Cross and Cathy Coulter of Virden are using their training to pioneer the movement in the area and to help make the experience informative and positive.

Cross said a Death Café is designed to be a safe place for people to come and talk about all things death and dying to help them to live a more engaged life. 

“Accepting the fact that you are going to die may in fact help you to live your best life,” said Cross, who along with Coulter is a certified death doula.

Cross first became exposed to the concept of Death Café through her schooling to become a death doula at the Institute of Traditional Medicine in Calgary. 

She already knew Coulter through their previous work in health care, and although they had different social interests, there was a common thread that connected them — death.

In May 2012, Coulter lost her son, Lane, in a dirt bike accident. Cross’s son, Derek, was the same age as Lane, and an instant bond formed between the two women.

When the idea of hosting a Death Café came up, they decided to join forces. They hosted their first one in the fall of 2018, and the rest is history. 

“We just put it out there (with a Death Café) and came away from it feeling really good,” said Cross. “The feedback was super.”  

Coulter said she believes that people left feeling empowered because their awareness about death and dying was enriched and enhanced, as others shared their personal experiences with dying and death, and how that impacted their lives.

They hosted a few events in Virden and word began to spread. Soon they had requests to go to other communities to host Death Cafés.  

The duo has now hosted 14 Death Cafes, with compelling results. 

“We knew that there was a need; that people were hungry for dealing with things in a better way,” said Cross.

The Death Café model was started in September of 2011 in the United Kingdom by Jon Underwood, and his psychotherapist mother, Sue Barsky Reid, who based the concept on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz. 

It evolved into a not-for-profit international organization whose objective is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

“We are ambassadors of Death Café,” said Cross. “They (Death Café) provide the model, resources, tools and website.”

It is described as a discussion group about death and dying with no agenda or mission, and is not to be mistaken for a support group or counselling session.  The rules are: to keep it accessible, respectful and confidential; provide drinks and food and is not intended to lead people to any conclusion, promote any product, or encourage any course of action. It is simply to talk about death. Period.

“It is way better when conversation is organic and self-directed,” said Cross.

They report a variety of people attend a Death Café, but most often they see people who have suffered a recent loss. Other attendees are sometimes people who come along as a support for that person, but once there, are happy that they agreed to come. Most who attend are female.

“In general, society is ill-equipped to deal with anything regarding death, but particularly men,” said Cross. “In my opinion, men have not been supported in their grieving process. It has changed who they are as a person and it is sad because they have not been allowed to feel what they needed to feel.”

“Our response to death is a learned response,” she added.  

Traditionally, the subject of death and dying tends to be avoided, viewed by society as taboo, even though, ironically, it affects us all at one time or another.  

“Death might be the first time that people have to deal with these emotions,” Cross said.  “Little losses all through life add up over time, and you learn how to cope with them, but if you haven’t had a lot and if the first big thing that happens to you is a death, it leaves you reeling — you don’t know what to do.

“There is no right or wrong way to “do” death, so to speak …. Grief is an individual thing. It is what it is for you personally.”  

Added Coulter, who has had her own fair share of experience dealing with death: “You don’t have to be a death doula to have a good experience with death, but you do have to communicate.”

 In addition to her 14-year-old son’s death in 2012, she also lost her husband in the fall of 2019.   

For Cross, a former nurse and home-care case co-ordinator, and Coulter, who worked with the Families First program, helping people has always been their passion.

As a result of the Death Cafes they have hosted, two main areas of focus have become clear: a need for education and support.

Currently, they are planning education sessions that may address many of the key issues, such as advanced care planning, health-care directives, medical assistance in dying, roles of a death doula, among others. They offer support and participation at any stage of life’s continuum.

Their philosophy is “to live with intention every day and create the best possible life today… for we will all die.”

“Therein lies the other principle that if you are prepared and get things done, say what you need to say, and do what you need to do, you can truly embrace the ending of your life, which is going to be a gift for your family,” said Cross.

“Live for today. You don’t know what tomorrow brings.”

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