A Year of Being Kind blog – Friday, April 4, 2014
Helpful Conversation—on Such a Topic! (Feature Friday!)
But what about topics that bring conversation to an absolute standstill? How about—death?
Small groups, medium-sized groups of people gather to talk about death at what is known as a Death Café. Some talk candidly, openly. Some with wistful sadness or still-palpable grief. Others with realism, tinged with fear or anxiety, seasoned with love for those who have passed on. Death, that final parting.
These Death Cafés can be made easier by adding tea (or coffee) and sweets. Here in the Chicago area, Death Cafés have been facilitated since October 2012 by Victoria Noe and Dan Bulf. A Café is not a therapy session, not a support group. But it’s a safe place, a space to be freely open about death and dying. Dan especially has taken the idea of Death Cafés and run with it. Dan Bulf is a trained group facilitator. He has hosted and facilitated Cafés at such diverse places as senior citizen residences and coffee shops, and—in ten days, at the Whole Foods in Northbrook.
But where did the idea for a Death Café come from? For that, we need to look to Switzerland, at the “café mortels” of the early 2000’s, organized by the Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. Inspired by this whole topic, a British man called Jon Underwood held the first Death Café in his home in England, in 2011. From there, the concept has taken off and become modestly successful. Modestly, because of the leery feeling that mainstream American culture maintains concerning death.
Dan recently reflected on one of several reasons behind these gatherings. “One of my personal challenges doing cause-based workshops like the Death Cafe is the accepting money in exchange for growth experiences. These experiences are offered to provide growth, connection and some fun. They come from my heart, so I make up that it should be a gift freely given. But there’s the reality that my time and efforts have value at a monetary level as well and intra-personal.”
One of Dan’s friends, whom he was trying to get to donate his time and expertise as a regular contributor, told him that money is like energy. It needs to flow, it isn’t natural to be contained or directed in a straight line. His philosophy made sense: a circle needs to be created and sustained for this energy. Dan figured that his efforts will dead end without participants completing the circle.
Dan has asked me to help him facilitate several of these Death Cafés around Chicago in the past year, because I have training as a chaplain, and with grief and end of life concerns. All kinds of thoughts of God—or a Higher Power—or a Life Force—are discussed. These conversations affect many, if not all, of those listening to a deep extent. I find them to be revealing, sensitive, even humorous at times. And many of those who attend have a Christian outline or understanding to life and death. Yes, sometimes certain people who come to a Café might still be dealing with some painful, raw issues. But Dan also wants those who attend to celebrate their finite lives, and not just get caught up in dark or sad thoughts.
He also needs to balance. To pick and choose where he might use his knowledge, understanding of group behavior, and ability to lead a conversation—and where the energy needs to flow. As Dan says, “It’s not easy.”
Thanks, Dan, for leading the way in this important conversation. (For more information see the website http://deathcafechicago.com/ )
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