Woolpit solicitor Nigel George launched Suffolk’s first Death Café in October last year. Billed as an evening of life, death, cake and contemplation, the event has been growing in popularity in the county ever since. Reporter Laura Smith attended the third of these.
What does death mean to you? If you close your eyes and concentrate on nothing else, does it become any clearer?
After brief introductions, that’s how last week’s Death Café got under way in Bury St Edmunds.
It was an uncomfortable few minutes. For me, all I could think about was loss and how empty my life would feel without the people I most loved in it.
I became bemused and began wondering why we devote so little thought or conversation to the one thing we all have in common, that inevitable moment when one way or another we will all draw our final breath.
Some in the group were unable to consider death without getting caught up in the fear and apprehension of not knowing how they would die.
Is this what makes it such a taboo subject?
For others, the exercise forced them to contemplate their lives. What had they already achieved and what were their ambitions for the future?
Perhaps most prevalent was the sense that we should have greater appreciation of our own mortality, the importance of taking the time to validate the people who really matter and to avoid, where possible, becoming consumed by trivial things.
Old sayings like ‘don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today’ and ‘don’t let the little things get you down’ seemed to ring true.
Unsure what to expect from the evening, I joined the group at St Nicholas Hospice Care with an open mind and was surprised to find such an eclectic, interesting group of people.
As well as visitors from Bury and nearby villages, there were those who had travelled from Ipswich and Saffron Walden to take part in Suffolk’s third Death Café, one of only about 70 thought to have ever taken place worldwide.
Among the 30 or so attendees were nursing, hospice and funeral staff, bereavement councillors and a non-practising priest.
There were also people working through different stages of grief and many more intrigued by the concept of the meeting.
The conversation moved freely and covered a range of topics from near-death experiences, after-life, religion, symbolism and culture to grief, organ donation and euthanasia.
Nothing was off limits and everyone’s views were respected.
One woman who grabbed the attention of the group was Lindy Wheeler, a psychotherapist from Bury who equated coping with the death of a loved one to ‘coming off heroin’.
Put simply, she said people were chemically designed to connect and bond with others and that those in close relationships produced feel good hormones including ‘the hug drug’ Oxytocin.
She said: “When a loved one dies the source of those ‘happy hormones’ dries up and those around them go into ‘withdrawal’. “The huge change surrounding the death of a loved one also triggers stress hormones, which is why the bereaved feel so emotionally and physically affected.”
In time, she said, with the love and support of others, the ‘hug drug’ starts flowing again and the grief and stress subside.
I had the utmost respect for the Woolpit woman sat next to me, who spoke candidly about the personal trauma in her life.
Alex Walker was familiar with death from a young age, being just three when her father died. She struggled with her family’s reluctance to talk about his death and how it made her feel.
She married young and endured the death of her son when he was just one-week-old.
Depression and counselling followed and now Mrs Walker is the first to offer no regrets for her life, understanding instead that all her experiences have helped shape who she is today.
Her work with disengaged youth is a passion derived from her troublesome childhood while her love of babies is a result of having lost the first of her three children.
For her, the Death Café was a chance to socialise over a familiar subject.
She said: “Death is the one thing everyone’s got in common so it was really nice to meet people that I wouldn’t otherwise have something in common with.”
As strange as it may seem, this wasn’t a morbid occasion. Rather, by the end of the night, I felt uplifted and left reflecting on the many thought-provoking discussions that had taken place.
Summing up at the end of the night, end of life educator Martin Russell said: “I have found it very fulfilling - two hours is not nearly long enough. I’ve got an awful lot out of it and would like to have heard each group’s discussions. I will try to go to some more - it’s been very good for me as an individual.”
The night proved such a success that organiser Nigel George has suggested holding them once a month in future.
He said: “Death Cafés give people a space in which they can have the kind of conversations it can often be difficult to have in everyday life.
“I think last week’s Café went really well. We got some very positive feedback and a lot of people wanted to know when the next one was.
“I’m looking to hold a monthly Café but need to work out a location and an idea of numbers.”
To request details of the next one, email firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about Mrs Wheeler’s methods for dealing with stress and anxiety, sign up for her seminar at the Self Centre, on Moreton Hall, Bury, on April 27. Call 01284 769090.