More death café sessions are planned in Shaftesbury. These meetings encourage discussion about what will happen to us when we die.
Organiser Nicola Donaldson says the events are social rather than macabre or gloomy. “It is quite jolly. And we have lots of cake and coffee,” explained Nicola.
When we had arranged to meet, I had expected Nicola to be dressed rather like a goth or with black lipstick. She quickly made it clear that the meetings are neither morbid nor maudlin. “There’s a lot of laughter. There’s a lot of listening and talking and sharing just that space with somebody else. It’s a uniting, unifying sort of experience,” she said.
Nicola was keen to tackle more misunderstandings about death cafés. They are not connected to religious, paranormal or euthanasia-supporting groups. “It is not advertised as a bereavement or counselling service,” she added.
The death café concept began in Hackney in 2011 and has spread across the country since. “It was started by somebody called John Underwood in London, in his mother’s kitchen. He started this to explore myths and fables around death and dying,” explained Nicola. “We’ve lost that through the way we live. The objective was to increase the awareness of death with a view of helping people to make the most of their finite lives and accepting that we all have to die at some point.”
Shaftesbury’s first death café was held at the Quaker Friends Meeting House. Nicola has hosted events in Marnhull, too. The meetings have been well received by locals with enquiring minds. “It is about curiosity and it’s for all people, from all walks of life and all ages, just to talk about their fears, dispel some of those fears and dogmas that we have around death and dying.”
Attendees sit down with a cuppa and chat. And like life itself, nobody knows where it is going to end up. “It has no agenda. It’s a group-directed discussion. All sorts of things can come up,” she said.
Discussions have flitted around several death-related topics including making wills, because not everyone has one. The groups have chatted about digital legacies and the passing on of passwords. That action will determine what happens with your social media accounts or websites you control after you die.
Nicola says one of the important aspects of death cafés is to encourage people to live their lives to the full. Some of the questions discussed can encourage group members to tackle issues before it’s too late. “Do you have any regrets? Would you like to change anything? How would you like to be remembered? What do you think is a good death?” asked Nicola.
Old gravestones in churchyards around Shaftesbury often feature inscriptions which say someone ‘gently fell asleep’. I told Nicola that I expected most people wanted to go that way. “I think most people want a pain-free death with their friends or family around them, in a comfortable place, but it doesn’t have to be at home. Not everybody wants to die at home,” she said.
Nicola says the sessions are trying to normalise an event that everyone will experience but many people shy away from discussing. “It’s almost a taboo in our country. We don’t talk about it. In other countries it’s very much part of their culture and the way of life. They prepare for it,” said Nicola, adding, “You think more of it if you get some sort of terminal illness or diagnosis. It is bringing to focus everything around death and dying.”
The attendees of the local sessions have been generally more senior in age. “They have been older people, but I do know of cafés where they’ve had some people in their 20s or 30s, although maybe not teenagers.”
Nicola started the cafés because she has always been interested in what happens to us. “I’ve always had a fascination with death, which seems a bit strange, but I am drawn to it,” she said.
Recently ThisIsAlfred featured a childbirth doula, a helper who can be booked to guide a mum-to-be through the birthing process. Nicola wants to be a ‘death doula’. I’m training to be an end of life doula. It is to support a family or a person dying in those last weeks, days or from time of diagnosis. It is a time of companionship and support and guidance.”
I suggest that this could be a tough job, emotionally but Nicola doesn’t appear fazed by the prospect. “I didn’t think so, but probably other people might think so,” she said. “I think it’s a privilege to be with people who are dying. I feel challenged by it. But I feel an affinity with it as well.”
The first Shaftesbury death café at the Quaker Friends Meeting House prompted stimulating discussion. “They were interesting. We had quite a big turnout. It is surprising what it opens up. I think people come away feeling content and sometimes you feel quite energised by it because you’re talking about things that perhaps you wouldn’t think about normally. They have thought about it, otherwise, they wouldn’t come,” said Nicola.
Nicola wants to build on the meeting’s success and host get-togethers every two months. She’s keen to find a café venue and having hot drinks and cake available will be an important consideration.
You can contact Nicola on 07975 570381 with your suggestions or questions.