A little while ago, Sarah and I decided it was time to host a day retreat about healing from loss. After all, few of us are untouched by it in some form - whether it’s miscarriage, the heartbreak of a relationship ending, the loss of a beloved pet or the death of a partner, parent, child or friend.
Death is a subject our society has a problem with and research by Dying Matters has found 77 per cent of us struggle to talk about it. Think about the hushed euphemisms we use - ‘passed’, ‘slipped away’ and so on (on my counselling course, we were taught to simply say someone had ‘died’ - a quiet, simple word that doesn’t skirt the subject). Death is part of the human experience, and in England alone, half a million people die every year, with each death affecting five people directly - and many more indirectly.
Bereavement counsellor Julia Samuel, whom I had the privilege to meet at an event last year, believes our unwillingness to discuss death may be partly down to superstition - a sense that if you talk about something, you’ll somehow make it happen. And, of course, it can seem a depressing and scary subject. Perhaps we’re able to get away with sticking our heads in the sand because as a society, we don’t have to confront death at close hand very often. These days, the dying process is usually medicalised and people often die in hospital. All this has made it very mysterious - and, therefore, a lot more frightening than it needs to be.
The international Death Café movement is a response to the silence and secrecy. At a Death Café, people get together to chat mortality over tea and cake – and as the host of my own local Death Café, in Kingston, south-west London, I’ve seen how liberating and uplifting it can be to sit and talk about death and dying with a bunch of strangers.
I decided to start a Death Cafe after being around a few friends who’d lost loved ones in particularly shocking, unexpected ways. I saw how some of them were left struggling because others didn’t know what to say or how to support them, so they were stranded with their grief. I believe if we can all get better at being open about death and bereavement - our fear, sadness, anger, guilt and whatever else comes up - we’ll be better able to support the bereaved, and will perhaps cope better ourselves when we’re faced with loss in any form, and indeed our own death.
Every Death Cafe is different. But it’s never downbeat or depressing. Yes, there can be tears - sometimes long-repressed ones that are easier to release in the company of supportive strangers. But there’s usually a lot of laughter, too. And the cafes can be very profound, bonding experiences - you certainly find out more about someone from hearing how they’d like their funeral, rather than what they do for a living. Above all, I think talking about death can free you up to enjoy your life and make the most of every precious moment. I always come away feeling moved, humbled and inspired. Why not look up your local Death Cafe ?
And think about coming along to our Colchester day retreat on 3 February. We’ll give you space to share whatever’s in your heart, and lots of inspirational exercises to start transforming your pain into something else.