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Mara Koven-Gelman: Death Cafes encourage people to embrace life

What 52-year-old do you know who looks forward to a weekly chat group held in Amherst called the “Death Cafe?” Before one thinks I’m fatalistic or death-obsessed, let’s do the numbers.

We all are born and we all die. We live in an aging society and region where more than 16 percent of Erie County residents and almost 22 percent of Amherst residents are over age 65. I figured there would be no shortage of death and dying talk. Conversation about death is not unique to Western New York. Currently, there are 1,397 Death Cafes in 27 countries. These are just the registered ones; I suspect there are more informal versions.

I was eager to see if this was a bereavement support group or, as advertised, a “death discussion group.” Who would actually sit for 90 minutes and talk about death if you had not been personally affected? I am still affected by the sudden loss of my husband 12 years ago. While life is good now, it was not for a long time and I often think about the years where I raised my two children solo, trying to juggle work, bereavement and finding love again.

The facilitator, Andre Toth, a well-known local psychotherapist – himself 77 years old – asked members of the 10-person group why they came and to share expectations of the group that meets for six sessions, several times a year. Sure enough, many people had close encounters with death, unfortunately some as young children when parents died.

How can you talk about death, someone you miss, and not get emotional? The group has an intellectual, cerebral element, even when feelings are mentioned. During the sessions we spoke about our perceptions of death, our regrets, how we want to be remembered, our definition of a “good death” and even the word “death.” Andre introduced a Boggle-type game. The goal was to list as many synonyms to “dead” as possible. My list was the longest, I suspect because I used idioms. Some included: pushing up daisies, worm food, kaput, 6 feet under and “hasta la vista, baby.” We all revolted against the soft term, “passed away.” Why gloss over the reality of finality?

The group laughs a lot talking about loved ones, their traits, funny anecdotes and historical views of death. One woman shared stories of her young mom who wore only black after her husband died in 1933 and never remarried. “Who would marry a woman with four children during the Depression?” The mom did get one marriage offer with the stipulation that she put all four children in the orphanage. “Get lost!” was the answer.

Andre asked: How do you feel when many of your peers die? A woman whose husband of 63 years died this past summer said, “I have a choice; to be sad and miss those who are dying around me, or choose life and be happy and active.” Another participant answered, “it might be hard to choose happiness if you suffer from depression. You are lucky that joy is an option.”

Regret is an issue that gets lots of air time. Most people in the group are over 70 and feel the passing of time has taught them to speak more boldly, take more risks and value family and friends.

Many might think this death talk is morbid, defeatist and depressing. But if a Death Cafe encourages people to live life, take risks to grow and value each other, how bad can that really be? It sounds like it should be renamed the “Life Cafe.” To learn more, visit deathcafe.com.