NEW YORK — Panic attacks, trouble breathing, relapses that have sent her to bed for 14 hours at a time: At 35, Marissa Oliver has been forced to deal with the spectre of death on COVID-19’s terms, yet conversations about her illness, fear and anxiety haven’t been easy.
That’s why she headed onto Zoom to attend a Death Cafe, a gathering of strangers willing to explore mortality and its impact on the living, preferably while sipping tea and eating cake.
“In the Death Cafe, no one winces,” said Oliver, who was diagnosed with the virus in March. “Now, I’m writing down everything in my life that I want to achieve.”
Death Cafes, part of a broader “death-positive” movement to encourage more open discussion about grief, trauma and loss, are held around the world, in nearly 100 countries. While many haven’t migrated online in the pandemic, others have.
The global virus toll and the social isolation it has extracted have opened old, unresolved wounds for some. Others attending virtual Death Cafes are coping with fresh losses from COVID-19, cancer and other illness. Still more bring metaphorical death to the circles: The end of friendships, shattered romances or chronic illness, as Oliver has endured.
At one recent virtual Death Cafe, a 33-year-old man spoke of refusing to pack up his wife’s belongings six months after her death from cancer. A woman who underwent a heart transplant 31 years ago described her peace with the decision not to have another, as her donated organ deteriorates.
For Jen Carl in Washington, D.C., the pandemic has intensified memories of her 11 years of sexual abuse as a child, her father’s drug and alcohol abuse, and his death about six years ago. She said sharing and listening to the stories of others in Death Cafes have helped.
“I feel just really so at peace and relieved when I’m in circles where folks are talking about real things in life and not trying to move away from the uncomfortable,” Carl told a recent group.
“I’ve been on a couple of Zoom calls with close friends who aren’t worried about talking about difficult things most of the time but then when COVID’S come up it’s like, `Oh well, we’re partying right now. Let’s not talk about that,’ and that just triggers me so much.”
Inspired by Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz, who organized his first “cafe mortel” in 2004, the late British web developer Jon Underwood honed the model and held the first Death Cafe in his London home in 2011. The idea spread quickly and the meetups in restaurants and cafes, homes and parks now span Europe and North America, reaching into Australia, the Caribbean and Japan.
Underwood died suddenly as a result of undiagnosed leukemia in 2017, but his wife and other relatives have carried on. They maintain a website, Deathcafe.com, where hosts post their gatherings.
One important difference between Death Cafes and traditional support and bereavement groups is the range of stories. But the cafes also offer the freedom to approach the room with levity rather than stern seriousness, and extraordinary diversity: a mix of races, genders and ages, from people in the moment with terminal loved ones to those who have lost classmates or relatives to suicide.
Death Cafes aren’t intended to “fix” problems and find solutions but to foster sharing as the road to support. They’re generally kept to 30 or so, meet monthly and also include the “death curious,” people who aren’t dealing with loss but choose to take on the topic anyway.
Psychotherapist Nancy Gershman, who specializes in grief and loss, has been hosting Death Cafes in New York since 2013, the year after they made their way to the U.S.
“Death Cafes are a place where strangers meet to talk about things regarding death and dying that they can’t bring anywhere else, that they can’t bring home or to co-workers or to best friends,” she said.
Registered nurse Nicole Heidbreder is a birth and end-of-life doula. She also trains others as doulas and has been hosting Death Cafes in Washington, D.C., for about five years.
“I was working as a full-time hospice nurse and I very quickly recognized how many families I was sitting with whom this was their very first time talking about the end of life. I just felt it was such an absolute shame,” Heidbreder said.
“One of the parallels between birth and death is that a little more than 100 years ago in our country, all of us would have been very well versed in what birth and death literally looked like,” she said. “We would have seen our family and neighbours do the tasks of tending to people who are giving birth or families who are losing someone. And now we simply aren’t exposed to that.”
Heidbreder said the coronavirus has changed the conversation yet again. She said she shifted to offering the virtual cafes “on a weekly basis at the time of peak COVID in the country.”
She now hosts people not just in the D.C. area, as she did before the pandemic, but across America, from California to North Carolina. More health care workers have shown up, too.
J. Dana Trent is a professor of world religions at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina. She served as a hospital chaplain in a death ward at age 25 after graduating from divinity school, assisting in 200 deaths in a year.
The ordained Southern Baptist minister used her experiences in the hospital for a 2019 book, “Dessert First: Preparing for Death While Savoring Life,” which offers a view of how “positive death” can be achieved.
“COVID has certainly brought death to the forefront. It has brought the death-positive movement to the forefront, but we’re still scared,” Trent said. “What I’m grateful for is that COVID has awakened society to the possibility of death. None of us is getting out of here alive.”
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
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Leanne Italie And Emily Leshner, The Associated Press