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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Death Cafes help ease grief, loss in the time of coronavirus

“In the Death Cafe, no one winces,” said Oliver, who was diagnosed with the virus in March.

By: AP | New York | July 2, 2020 2:01:06 pm
Death Cafes help ease grief, loss in the time of coronavirus Death Cafes, part of a broader “death-positive” movement to encourage more open discussion about grief, trauma and loss, are held around the world, in nearly 100 countries. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy) (Representational)

Panic attacks, trouble breathing, relapses that have sent her to bed for 14 hours at a time: At 35, Marissa Oliver has been forced to deal with the specter of death on COVID-19’s terms, yet conversations about her illness, fear and anxiety haven’t been easy.

That’s why she headed onto Zoom to attend a Death Cafe, a gathering of strangers willing to explore mortality and its impact on the living, preferably while sipping tea and eating cake. “In the Death Cafe, no one winces,” said Oliver, who was diagnosed with the virus in March.

“Now, I’m writing down everything in my life that I want to achieve.” Death Cafes, part of a broader “death-positive” movement to encourage more open discussion about grief, trauma and loss, are held around the world, in nearly 100 countries.

While many haven’t migrated online in the pandemic, others have. The global virus toll and the social isolation it has extracted have opened old, unresolved wounds for some. Others attending virtual Death Cafes are coping with fresh losses from COVID-19, cancer and other illness.

Still more bring metaphorical death to the circles: The end of friendships, shattered romances or chronic illness, as Oliver has endured. At one recent virtual Death Cafe, a 33-year-old man spoke of refusing to pack up his wife’s belongings six months after her death from cancer.

A woman who underwent a heart transplant 31 years ago described her peace with the decision not to have another, as her donated organ deteriorates. For Jen Carl in Washington, D.C., the pandemic has intensified memories of her 11 years of sexual abuse as a child, her father’s drug and alcohol abuse, and his death about six years ago.

She said sharing and listening to the stories of others in Death Cafes have helped.

“I feel just really so at peace and relieved when I’m in circles where folks are talking about real things in life and not trying to move away from the uncomfortable,” Carl told a recent group.

“I’ve been on a couple of Zoom calls with close friends who aren’t worried about talking about difficult things most of the time but then when COVID’S come up it’s like, `Oh well, we’re partying right now. Let’s not talk about that,’ and that just triggers me so much.”

Inspired by Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz, who organised his first “cafe mortel” in 2004, the late British web developer Jon Underwood honed the model and held the first Death Cafe in his London home in 2011.

The idea spread quickly and the meetups in restaurants and cafes, homes and parks now span Europe and North America, reaching into Australia, the Caribbean and Japan. Underwood died suddenly as a result of undiagnosed leukemia in 2017, but his wife and other relatives have carried on.

They maintain a website, Deathcafe.com, where hosts post their gatherings. One important difference between Death Cafes and traditional support and bereavement groups is the range of stories. But the cafes also offer the freedom to approach the room with levity rather than stern seriousness, and extraordinary diversity: a mix of races, genders and ages, from people in the moment with terminal loved ones to those who have lost classmates or relatives to suicide.

Death Cafes aren’t intended to “fix” problems and find solutions but to foster sharing as the road to support. They’re generally kept to 30 or so, meet monthly and also include the “death curious,” people who aren’t dealing with loss but choose to take on the topic anyway.

Psychotherapist Nancy Gershman, who specializes in grief and loss, has been hosting Death Cafes in New York since 2013, the year after they made their way to the U.S.

“Death Cafes are a place where strangers meet to talk about things regarding death and dying that they can’t bring anywhere else, that they can’t bring home or to co-workers or to best friends,” she said.

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