Inside the uplifting world of Death Cafes

Inside the uplifting world of Death Cafes

Meet the young people finding life talking about death in cafes popping up across the world.

As I entered a dimly lit room I didn’t know what to expect, and would’ve believed you if you told me I’d mistakenly joined a Book Club or Crochet Circle. Ten smiling faces looked back at me, and I selected my chair in the circle, anxiously waiting for the silence to break. When it did, my nerves dissipated, and my world opened up.

This little room, at the end of an idyllic London Mews, was my first experience of a Death Cafe. It was my second date in a now, ironically deceased romance. When he first indicated this is how we’d be spending the second half of our rendezvous, I was sceptical and strung up in equal measure.

It turned out to be an incredibly thoughtful gesture. I lost my grandmother a week prior, and felt myself grieving more than her passing; I was mourning our fractured relationships and shared struggles with mental health and addiction. I’m a few years sober now, and that Monday evening, I knew I was ready to open the door to feelings I’d long numbed.

As children, we release everything. We express unadulterated emotion, speak our minds, and move our bodies freely without paying to let off steam in Ecstatic Dance classes and Smash Rooms. Somewhere along the way to adolescence, we learn to mask how we feel, suppressing the expressions of our internal desires and emotions.

Research carried out by the University of Glasgow discovered that adolescents and young adults in the UK reported the highest levels of loneliness, which has a knock-on effect on their mental health. Girlguiding 2023 Attitude Survey revealed that girls and young womens’ happiness levels were the lowest in fifteen years; eighty-nine per cent felt anxious or worried, and 44 per cent felt consistently lonely.

Dr Naomi Thompson is a lecturer of youth and community work at Goldsmiths University in London. She notes that these feelings of loneliness and isolation are particularly acute in the aftermath of a loss. From feelings of grief when parents divorce to mourning a relationship, loss isn’t limited to death. Indeed, Naomi notes, “there are less conventions for expressing and processing more individual or complex forms of grief and it can feel more isolating than after a death.”

It’s proven people with a strong sense of community are happier, healthier, and, ironically, given the topic of this article, live longer. The emergence of spaces like Death Cafe helps to fulfil basic human needs we're so frequently starved of in modern life.

In 2004, Swiss Sociologist Bernard Crettaz developed a project called Café Mortel. The idea was that individuals would convene at a pre-selected location and talk as openly as they wanted to about death. A few years later, council worker Jon Underwood came across Crettaz’s creation, and with the help of some inspiration and his Mother, Psychologist Sue Barksy Reid, Death Cafe was born.

Jon sadly passed away suddenly in 2017, but the format he pioneered lives on. The first Café Mortel took place in a restaurant, and Jon’s Death Cafe at his east London home. They were intimate affairs and have remained so despite there now being more than 17,818 Death Cafes across the globe.

Even though they feel therapeutic, they aren’t counselling sessions. The ‘cafes’ are non-profit discussion groups, where people get together over tea and cake, offer support and “make the most of their finite lives” by chatting about death. Anybody can host one. All you need is a set of Death Cafe guidelines, a venue and the ability to bake or buy a pack of Mr. Kipling’s.

We rarely offer genuine answers to acquaintances’ questions about how we’re doing. But there's something special about being seen for who we are by sharing our feelings. Volunteers Jenny Watts and Daniel Cooklin host regular meetings for that very reason. “I like the way a group of strangers can gather for a short period of time and by the end, have delved into deep thoughts and feelings about core issues we all face in our lives.”

In her late teens, Ada developed Lupus, a chronic condition which can lead to other health issues. Every day was a struggle, and when her physical health deteriorated, her mental health followed. As a young woman, she'd never contemplated her mortality and the less control she had, the more her health anxiety showed itself.

”I couldn’t be in the present. Catastrophe was my factory setting, and I kept having panic attacks bad enough to send me to hospital. Choice was taken away from me at a time in my life when I was finally ready to be free and figure out who I was. My family meant well, but my feelings were trivialised because, of course, they couldn't understand and thought I was being ‘dramatic’.”

She felt emotionally and physically alone, watching on as friends lived experiences she thought she’d be a part of. A few Google sessions later, Ada found Death Cafe, where she heard people speak openly about fearing death and their health concerns. It “validated” what she’d gone through. Something that once stopped her from living became why she appreciated life and looked forward to the future more than ever.

Like Ada, Samah added Death Cafes to her agenda when previously absent fears of death entered her headspace. In Samah’s case, anxiety surfaced years after her younger brother suddenly passed away at the age of fifteen. The unexpected nature of his passing put her in shock. She described her state as “surreal and emotionally frozen,” and her parents’ ability to grieve so outwardly filled her with shame.

“There was a hole inside of me. I’d wake up with a split second where I forget he wasn’t there anymore. But I just couldn’t let it out like my parents did. I don’t like to use the word anymore, but I genuinely hated myself for what I assumed was me not grieving ‘properly.’”

In her father’s devastation, he stopped working, and Samah picked up odd jobs. There wasn’t time to compute the gravity of her new reality, which isn’t uncommon.

“Young people today are more aware of issues like trauma and the importance of their mental health,” argues Dr. Thompson as we speak over the phone. Whilst this is true, the particular set of circumstances, she details, makes this generation particularly susceptible to them. “They have experienced some major systemic insecurities in work, housing, etc, as well as losing two years of youth to the pandemic, that the generations before did not. I do not think there is sufficient investment in mental health services or youth services to respond to this effectively.”

Without adequate support and hundreds of distractions, Samah’s needs took a backseat until her father returned to work. “When I hit pause, it happened.” The tears came, the fears emerged, and she found Death Cafe.

You can’t schedule grief in. There’s no such thing as too much, too little or too long. Dr Lucy Davidson is a chartered counselling psychologist who has worked in the NHS, charities and the private sector and specialises in anxiety, depression, relationships and grief. She disputes the belief that we can conceptualise grief arguing that it is a “highly individual process where there may be no end point or socially acceptable way to feel.”

There can be huge discomfort in discussing death. If you don’t encounter loss in youth, the most exposure you typically get is fast-forwarding through traumatising scenes in Bambi and The Lion King. Avoiding a topic that will affect us all at one point or another limits our vocabulary and leaves us unprepared to be there for others and ourselves.

Luke came to Death Cafe when his childhood friend lost his father to suicide. He didn’t know what to say or how to behave, so he retreated. Gradually, guilt swept in when he started “freaking out” over his parents’ mortality. In the same way, couples think about their relationship when friends break up; it’s human nature to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and relate it to our lives.

Malin, a young woman in the same group, mentioned how broken she was by her dog’s death and worried she was overreacting. The number of people who shared their sentiments relieved them both of unnecessary guilt.

Compared to other cultures, the West generally relies on what Lucy refers to as “a sanitised and medicalised version” of grief proceedings. And it’s not cutting it.

Between 2022 and 2023, Naomi ran the ‘Faith in Funerals?’ research project alongside fellow Goldsmith professors. They analysed 1000 funerals nationwide, surveyed funeral directors and arrangers, and interviewed celebrants, ministers, funeral arrangers, and those in mourning. The project explored how we mourn and found religious affiliation decreases with age.

“We can’t assume that with this decline young people don’t need ceremony and spaces to express collective emotion,” Dr Thompson said, adding that coping with grief in all its forms is made more difficult without support and dialogue at all stages of the process.

This inability to express collective emotion or process grief is exacerbated for different demographics. Men are one of those groups. In 2017,the world's largest organization of personality and social psychologists, SPSP, examined seventy-eight global studies centred around male suicide rates. Unfortunately, in most countries, the number of men who die by suicide exceeds that of women. Ninety-two per cent of the studies they looked at cited emotional suppression as a contributor and ninety-six per cent showed that cultural norms of masculinity also increase the risk significantly.

Combined with what Dr Lucy Davidson coined our “death-denying” culture, young men like Dylan suppress feelings that have a heartbreaking impact on their mental health. Throughout COVID, his family lost multiple loved ones, but the unspoken rule was it would remain unspoken. “It was legit the messed up scene in Saltburn where everybody eats lunch mid-murder investigation on repeat.”

He unknowingly numbed himself with drugs and alcohol, until the solution turned into the problem, and his family’s “stoicism” transformed into pushing him into therapy. Down the line, he began attending Death Cafes. The support he lacked at home came from a room of people who, not so long ago, were strangers.

Throughout the Victorian era, people hired professional mourners to “weep” at burial sites and funerals. Their emotional outpourings helped attendees feel safe enough to do the same. In a way, Death Cafes provide “something similar.” For my own part, I left without a third date, but gained a new perspective and hope that as spaces like Death Cafe emerge, we’ll all find the community we’ve been seeking.

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