Elaine Voci, a Death Cafe host in Carmel, Indiana, wrote this lovely opinion column “10 reasons why I want to talk about death” that just appeared in the Indianapolis Star. As a pioneer who held the first Death Cafe west of the Mississippi, I agree with her 100 percent. Here’s what she wrote:
A lot of people shy away from talking about death; they think such conversations are morbid and don’t serve any purpose other than to make people feel uncomfortable. I see it differently: I think that death and life are two sides of the same coin, so whenever we talk about death, we’re also talking about life. In fact, I have 10 reasons why I want to talk about death:
- We prepare for many significant life transitions, investing time and treasure in recognizing births, weddings, graduations and funerals; yet we actively avoid and fail to prepare for dying — something that we will each do one day. I prefer to accept and act on the mildly humorous truth that “No one gets out of life alive.”
- When two people get together and talk about death it unites them in a special way and brings a quality of the sacred into their conversation. By sharing life experiences, asking questions and listening to one another, each is strengthened and feels less alone. This is one of the best parts of attending a Death Café — the chance to talk openly with other human beings who are like-minded and want to ask questions and share thoughts that bring death out of the shadows and into a conversation over cake and tea.
- When we don’t allow death into our conversations, that seems really morbid, dark and scary from my perspective. We are each mortal beings; we are born and we will die one day. By trying to ignore that unchangeable reality, we give death more power than it deserves; but when we bring it into the open, death takes its place as an important and natural part of the life cycle of all living creatures.
- Once we accept that our days are numbered, we are then free to choose to live the length and width of our lives and to treasure each day as the gift it is. Our lives, like other stories, have a beginning and an end. Facing death means we can prepare for it while we are healthy and alive, so that we don’t waste a single chance to “live an awesome life!”
- I see my own death as a vital reminder to live authentically with gratitude and full awareness; being mindful of the impermanent nature of life makes it easier for me to focus on what matters most and to let other things fall by the wayside. (A related saying I share in life coaching fits well here: “We don’t have to attend every argument we’re invited to!”)
- I see the death of each person that I love as a summons to love them completely, giving all my heart and energy, while I have the chance to do it. I want to make happy memories that will last a lifetime, and bring comfort and joy to those so dearly loved, right now, today. I learned this from my father, who used to say, “Give your bouquets now, don’t wait for the funeral!”
- If we talk about death with our children in age-appropriate ways from the time they are young, then they can learn to care more about life and can be helped to erase the TV and video game-driven fears about their own death and the death of their loved ones. We have an obligation to wrest this role away from TV and media sources and exercise our place as parents and grandparents so that our children can turn to us when they have questions and we can talk things over, and help educate them with factual, sensitive and loving communications.
- Our fear of death impacts the elderly who are so often separated from society and warehoused in buildings with sterile environments devoid of natural beauty, flowers, animals, and youngsters. Such segregation is unnatural and saddens me; a society “…that equates aging with the tragic loss of youthful vigor makes the idea of aging as a virtue hard to accept… and the belief persists that old age is a fatal defect that must be avoided for as long as possible.” ( “What are Old People For?” by William Thomas, M.D.)
- When our society views death as the “opponent” in a “battle” to be waged and won, then trained doctors and medical professionals make it a priority to combat and forestall death. Families, too, make unrealistic demands to preserve life at all costs. A hundred years ago, pneumonia was called the “old man’s friend” because it often was the natural cause of death in the elderly. Then penicillin was invented and old people could recover from pneumonia, rather than succumb to it. More and better drugs have given us ways to keep the heart beating even if the mind is no longer functioning. Expensive hospital care and needless suffering results because we push death away, rather than invite it to a graceful final dance with palliative care and loving companionship to help dying be painless, brief and dignified.
- Dying is inevitable but living is not. I recently heard that on a TED talk by Wayne Earl, whose teenage daughter died of cancer and inspired John Green to write “The Fault in our Stars.” He pointed out that death is not the most powerful thing in life — life is the most powerful thing in life. Even after we die love will remain, and go on in the memories of those who knew and loved us. In the words of Thornton Wilder in “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
So, I am focused on life and that’s why I want to talk about death. I believe that the reason Death Cafes, like the one I facilitate each month in Carmel, are appearing around the world in large number (974 at last count) is because lots of people are ready to talk about death, dying and end of life issues. They want to rid themselves of the fear of death and make it a part of ordinary conversation – in order to live with greater passion and joy and mindfulness.
Voci, Ph.D. is a Life Coach, an author, a grandmother and a mother, and a lover of all things dark chocolate. She co-facilitates a bimonthly bereavement group of widows and widowers at a local hospice and is a member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Visit www.elainevoci.com to learn more and to read her monthly blog.
If you are in Albuquerque, mark your calendar for the next local Death Cafe on Saturday, September 27, 2014, 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the Swiss Alps Bakery Cafe, 3000 San Pedro NE, Suite F, Albuquerque, NM 87110. Phone: 505-881-3063. More information here.