By Helena Dolny
Published by City Press 28 July 2013
Let's Talk About Dying 5: Talking Coffins Over Coffee
Check lists for checking out - the practical stuff- it’s easy to draw up such a list and not that difficult to execute. (City Press 21st July 2013). Why have so many of us not done this? It would seem that our level of discomfort for the discussions that need to go before is too high.
Death is the runner up in the US polls on what people are most afraid of; public speaking is in first place. But many people spend time and money on improving their skills and confronting their fear of public speaking. Time spent talking about death and dying, however, is mostly avoided.
Some societies hold taboos about discussing death, the idea being that if you name it, it’ll come knocking at your door. One study indicates that approximately 75% of British people are uncomfortable talking about death and dying and as few as three out of ten have talked to their loved one about their own wishes. (Guardian 16th July 2013) I wonder what the South African figures would be and how they might vary in the different parts of our diverse society.
Even when people plan to go under the knife, they often choose not to say their “just-in-case-something-goes-wrong” goodbyes. In April 2011, Jonathan Rands, South African actor, 57 years old, (best known in the lead role of Percy Fitzpatrick in the film Jock of the Bushveld) went to hospital to have a stent put in. It’s thought of as a routine operation: you’re a day patient. Rands, I was told, did not even tell his son that he was going to be operated on. Complications arose. He died. (www.timeslive.co.za. Article44562). His wife sat holding his cell phone wanting to contact his friends, but Jonathan took the secret of his cell phone PIN number with him to his grave.
The fear of death phenomena seems universal. I’m not coming across any examples of any country or belief paradigm whose members are at all relaxed at the thought of their own eventual death. Psychotherapist and author Irving Yalom puts this anxiety down to the unique human capability of self-awareness.
“Self-awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. This is what makes us human. But it comes with a costly price: the wound of mortality. Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and inevitably, diminish and die” In Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Dread of Death, Yalom shares what he has learnt about the terror of death from his own experience, his patients and other writers.
“Death is unavoidable – so we may as well get used to it” (Sunday Independent 8 March 2009) Journalist John Walsh was writing about Jade Goody’s (of Big Brother fame) decision to have camera’s track her last months of decline dye to cervical cancer.
But there’s the hard and painful part. How can we get used to the idea of death and feel less fearful and disempowered by it?
I work as a leadership coach and we are trained that the first step towards overcoming any fear is to name it and engage with it.
Ten years ago in Switzerland and France a discussion group movement started that met in coffee shops. They called themselves “Café Mortel.” Their intention was to discuss the philosophical issues around death, not practical discussions around end-of-life choices or providing a grief support group. Their focus was “What is death like? . . .How do our views of death inform the way we live?”
Jon Underwood hosted his first Death Café meeting in London in 2011, with the aim to provide “a space where people can discuss death and find meaning and reflect on what’s important and ask profound questions.
Since 2012 “Death Cafes” have sprung up in 40 cities in the USA. “Death Cafes” provide a casual forum for people to meet once a month in a coffee shop. Anyone of any age comes in response to “Facebook announcements, storefront fliers, and “what’s on” listings” (New York Times “Death be not decaffeinated: Over cup, Groups face taboo.” 16 June 2013). “Death and grief are topics avoided at all costs in our society,” said Audrey Pellicano, 60, who hosts the New York Death Café (it held its fifth meeting in early June 2013). ”If we talk about them, maybe we won’t fear them as much.”
I’ve come across two South African initiatives:
University of the Third Age (U3A) is an organisation for elder citizens who run courses for each other; they occasionally organize a speaker on the topic.
Gracious Living and Dying is the standing discussion topic of a Johannesburg group of eight who meet for dinner once every two months.
What about a third initiative? Can I be brave enough to pioneer a Death Café in Johannesburg? Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll look for a venue that’s prepared to host us.