What Is A Death Café – And Who Would Want To Go Anyway?

A few weeks ago, Dan and I went to a Death Café – it was on a whim, because I saw it in a Barnes and Noble e-mail that I was in the process of deleting.  Also because I have been trying to live into Julia Cameron’s advice to have an artist’s date every week.  Planning anything a week ahead when I am trying to spend as much time as possible with Opal (our 20 month-old granddaughter) seems almost impossible.  She-Who-Rules has not figured out that adults are happier when the children in their lives have a regular nap schedule…in any case, why not go on the spur of the moment?

photo credit: Death Cafe

We had no idea what to expect, but showed up along with eight other people at the “Solarium” (a space with lots of windows next to the Pets section) in the back of the Boulder, Colorado B&N. Our volunteer facilitator introduced herself as someone with experience with both hospice and midwifery.  Beginnings and endings, her specialty.  We started with a brief introduction to the Death Café – who knew that this was an international movement, and that all over the globe there were other people participating in discussions about death on a regular basis.  If you don’t believe me, Google it yourself (https://deathcafe.com)– the first thing that pops up is “Welcome to Death” followed by an invitation:  “At a Death Cafe people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.”  Today, as I write this, I could attend one in St Luis Obispo or Quezon City in the Philippines.

How odd – my first thought – how can this be so popular?  Why does the idea of meeting with strangers to talk about death have meaning from Lake Forest, New York to Goteborg, Sweden (oddly, as we entered, I passed by the popular book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson).  So I sat feeling intrigued but somewhat detached, observing the people sitting in the circle with Dan and me with interest.  Across from me were three older women (in other words people roughly my age!) all looking very Boulder.  That means middle class with tiny efforts to be a bit offbeat – a purple streak through gray hair or an embroidered vest.  There was a couple who appeared to be about 50, and next to me a very large man of about the same age, who made it clear that he had come only because he was asked by the facilitator.  A rather sad looking woman in her sixties arrived late, and positioned herself slightly outside the circle, although we made every effort to rearrange the chairs. 

So why had they come?  We began by offering up our reasons, some of which (like mine) were curiosity, others because they had recently experienced a death.  One was still trying to make sense of a loss many years ago of a beloved brother; another because the passing of her sister made her aware that there was no one left in the world who knew her as a child. No one there was ill or recovering from a serious illness.  In fact, we all looked rather vital….

I opened, saying that I was coming from curiosity – wanting to try new things – and because the last year had been full of deaths and skirmishes with death for multiple friends.  By the time we finished with our offerings – what drew us, what our experiences were with death –it felt as if we were part of an intimate circle.  The feeling of instant membership was odd—I can’t think of another time when I have entered a group of strangers and felt so quickly as if I belonged.  Also, the often-noisy Judge in my head – the one that edits what other people are saying while they are just beginning to formulate their thoughts — was surprisingly quiet.  What people talked about silenced The Judge – it was as if the topic of death encouraged a level of intimacy that you would never find in other settings. 

The 50-year old man talked (at great length) about the paradox of watching his brother suffer over several years and the joy of seeing him become increasingly spiritual and at one with his life.  We talked about acceptance – one of my mantras – we talked about the experiences of being present with someone who was dying.  We talked about whether we wanted a death surrounded by loving relatives or whether, in our deepest heart, we wanted to be alone on the journey.  One woman – the only one with any apparent attachment to an image of afterlife – was very positive that she would be reincarnated – and that she would retain a great deal of the knowledge and experience that she already possessed.  No one else seemed to be certain of anything except that the idea that dying filled him or her with awe.  Only Cat, the 50-ish wife of the man whose brother had dies some years ago, said little.

So we were there for well over an hour.  Dan and I left feeling that it had been a remarkable experience.  Why can’t we find this level of connection without having to confront death?  What is it about a Death Café that promotes connections when other conversational opportunities do not?

Photo credit: Death Cafe

Postscript:  I drafted this early last spring when I was in Boulder, Colorado – escaping harsh Minnesota winter for a milder version. Looking back after six months, community seemed to surface from a collective experience that was simultaneously anonymous and intimate.  We were there for remembrance as well as being open about both the wounds and healing that we experienced individually.  If you want to be part of this, you can:  The website says, “People who adopt the model set out in our guide are welcome to set up their own Death Cafes. So far we’ve held Death Cafes in 65 countries.”  I think that I will take them up on the invitation….

If I Don’t Know My Purpose Am I A Retirement Failure?

Photo credit:  Ian Schneider

When I was in my 50s, I gave my mother (who was 30 years older) a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life.  She was in a funk, battling a tendency toward untreated depression, and I thought it might help her.  Of course, I hadn’t considered some underlying reasons why that was a poor idea (she was an avowed atheist and often frustrated by her generation’s limited expectations for what women would do outside the home).  My inappropriate choice was based on the title, which implied that everyone already has a purpose and our job is to accept and live into it.  My mother didn’t read it, so I feel only a smidgen of regret at the gift.  But I think that I was dead wrong….

Here I am, almost as old, inundated with a drumbeat of blogs, and aphorisms that urge me to FIND—REIGNITE–CREATE a purpose-driven life, which is typically described with an almost sexual PASSION at the center.  A sampling from the web includes: 

  • “Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire”
  • “Life – seize it and make it amazing. Discover your passion. Take chances. Follow your dreams. Today is the day. Don’t pass it by”
  • “There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
  • “The things you are passionate about are not random. They are your calling.”

Books extolling this certainty for later-in-lifers proliferate –now is the time to find that passion!  Directly or subtly, effort is at the core:  How to find your passion after you retire.  As one website, 60 & Me suggests, now is the time for people to become more purpose-driven and more passionate – and probably do something that looks like work (paid or unpaid):

“The overlap between what you are good at and what you are paid for is your profession. On the other hand, what you are paid for and what the world needs is your vocation or calling.  The point where what you love overlaps with what the world needs constitutes your mission. Then lastly, the combination of what you are good at and what you love is your passion.”

THIS QUOTE EXHAUSTS ME, in part because I had to read it three or four times to understand it.  MOREOVER, IT MAKES ME FEEL BAD ABOUT MYSELF. Not only do I have to have purpose and passion – I need a mission and a vocation in my retirement!  I have no idea where to start with this….

There is a dark underbelly to the mandate of finding purpose at all life stages.  I have a colleague, quite brilliant, a wonderful administrator who effortlessly makes things happen within a large bureaucracy, is exceptionally kind, and who suffers from a sense that her life is not meaningful because there is no focused PURPOSE at the center, nothing that DRIVES her daily work.  She feels that she is not enough.  Her work life lacks passion. Or focus. Or certainty.  Or something. 

I don’t blame Rick Warren, although producing a book that has sold 30 million copies provides impetus for others to adopt his words (but not his meaning).  Warren’s work focused on finding purpose by living fully into beliefs and a community shaped by a particular set of virtues and principles.  It has less to say to the self-motivated individual who tries to self-actualize through individual striving.  His title was highjacked.

So, back to age, retirement, and a redefined “purpose”. I find comfort in some ideas that I have come across, most of which involve making purpose more “right sized” in our lives rather than the driver of happiness and fulfillment.  Dmitri Pavluk talks about self-actualization, which includes insight (think of the Buddha!), awareness and clarity (look around; be observant!), and connectedness (Yay! Other people) – and, yes, something called purpose.  In other words, purpose can only be understood in the context of a whole life that has both inner and outer expressions. The elements that he defines as self-actualization are related, fluid, and inseparable.  We change.  We grow. Life does not always happen on the schedule that we had in mind. 

Mark Manson, whose blog often addresses questions of personal meaning, says it more simply:

So when people say, “What should I do with my life?” or “What is my life purpose?” what they’re actually asking is: “What can I do with my time that is important?”

I couldn’t make my mother happy, but I know that she adored her family and made my high school friends want to come over to our house because they felt so welcomed.  She exposed me to eggplant in the late 1950s, when no one else in Ann Arbor knew what an eggplant was, much less how to cook it.  She enjoyed living in several foreign countries during her adult life. She taught me not to stand on the sidelines when an important political question is on the agenda.  I am not an atheist, but her questioning of EVERYTHING has been an invaluable model for me.  I remember her (when not severely depressed) as “right sized” and adventuresome. 

When I look at Ian Schneider’s photo above, what I see is visual irony:  How often do passion-purpose lead us to a place where all we can (metaphorically) see is our tired feet in a featureless landscape?  That sense led one of my internationally recognized colleagues to retire earlier than he had planned.  However, a year later, as we checked in at a casual breakfast, he described his choices about how to spend his time—to read and think, explore awareness and joy of nature, create new connections with his wife –with a sense of gleeful gratitude

In the end, isn’t caring for a precious asset – time – at the core of purpose?  I can do the most important and meaningful things that are available today.  And tomorrow.  And stop worrying about BIG PURPOSE AND PASSION.  …To be continued….