Books lined the walls in neat yet homely shelving. The air carried a strong fragrance of expertly-brewed coffee and fragrant teas, mingling with a pleasant atmosphere of quiet excitement and anticipation. We were almost – but not quite – late for our very first ‘Death Café’ experience, but it didn’t seem to faze our hosts or the fifteen or so people already settled in an interesting assortment of chairs around the outside of the room. Perhaps it helped that a ripple of applause was in progress as my wife and I (this was a birthday treat for her!) made our entrance to the tiny front room of the small café-bookshop, and it seemed churlish to do anything but thank the assembled throng for such a polite welcome.
And what a group we had in the room. I had gone along to the gathering with an expectation that most of those present would either be my own age (49 going on 31) or older, however to my delight I found people the same age of my children somewhat over-represented. Mixed in with thirty-somethings were people of my own age and as a wonderful gift, a very sprightly lady of – she was by no means shy about her age, and why would she be – 86. An intriguing, exciting mix of ages and experience surrounded us all as we began to listen and talk.
Some of us were there because we were hurting from recent, raw emotional wounds. Some of us had surprisingly similar stories of loss to recount ; stories of sadness, grief and longing. Others had come to share losses of long ago, and even losses yet to come and anticipated with understandable fear and dread. All of us, however, had come with a shared purpose; to listen, and to hopefully take away with us something – or even some things – into our futures and to our loved ones. What we carry with us, after all, is so often what we unwittingly share with our closest companions in life.
Our host/facilitator proved more than equal to the task; Steve was engaging, energetic and obviously filled with a passion for the subject, and very soon we were all engrossed in one another’s shared experiences and insight as he gently allowed us to bring ourselves into the small, unfamiliar spotlight. It wasn’t always or easy for us; another person’s emotional pain is neither easy to share or comfortable to watch, but barriers came softly down as the group followed the wonderful wisdom of our oldest member and compassionately accepted the gifts that were offered up to us. Quickly, the room began to fill with a sense of togetherness, of sharing and of humanity.
Many of the experiences that we listened to were extremely moving, and many were inspirational. To my personal surprise I found a sentence repeating over and over in my head as I listened to the generosity of my group colleagues: “Death is entirely about living”. We had all, as we shared our personal thoughts, been inexorably talking more and more about life, for death is inextricably, undeniably, part of every single life on this planet – even more so for the sentient species ( I personally love Douglas Adams’ theory that we are only the second most intelligent life form on earth; the dolphins had worked everything out eons ago).
Perspectives were shared and explored (although we all wanted more time to do so!) amid laughter and a growing enthusiasm and realization that things made sense, that the world, as sad as it can sometimes seem, makes its own sense, even if we’re not always immediately aware of it. Two hours passed by with so much still left to listen to, and to contribute. It had been not just enjoyable; it had been a truly meaningful exchange of experiences, knowledge and of perspective. At the end of our evening, perhaps twenty four of us stood and bade each other farewell and good journeys, friendly eyes looking around the room, still giving, still ready to listen. We were together.
We are, as a species – indeed, as a life form, united by death. Whatever our beliefs, death comes to us all in the same basic package, and that biological reality is blunt and absolute. Our bodies die and our loved ones are left behind to feel, to wonder and to live without us. While we live, our opportunities are manifold; we all have choices to make about our own lives and by direct association, the lives of those who may depend upon us. Our society tends to expect us to make these choices along familiar, externally-sourced lines of respectability and acceptability - yet there are, in fact, no real rules. Our living will definitely end when we die, but exactly how much we squeeze into our time on this pale blue dot is our choice.
My wife and I are already on a path of our own choosing; we have plans which are somewhat outside of the norm, but we also recognize our parental responsibilities, and we are content to keep things on hold until our children are all safely making headway in the big, wide world. That’s our choice and our next one is already on the cards; we may not be parachuting, bungee-jumping or climbing Everest any time in the next forty years, but we won’t be focusing upon chasing down our mortgage or waiting to retire, either.
What could you choose to make your death bed experience a slow, satisfied smile?
Leo Simmons is an embryonic writer, still trying to find the most efficient neurological pathways. A former British Bobby, Leo lives with his family in BC, Canada, where apart from writing he pursues a number of interests, including hypnosis therapy.
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