Let’s talk about Dying: Talking coffins over coffee

Helena Dolny Lets talk about Dying: Talking coffins over coffee

Checklists for checking out – the practical stuff: it’s easy to draw up such a list and not that difficult to execute.

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. While many people spend time and money on improving their skills and confronting their fear of public speaking, talking about death and dying 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 30% have talked to their loved ones about their own wishes.

I wonder what the South African figures would be and how they might vary in 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, the South African actor Jonathan Rands, who was 57 and 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.

Rands, I was told, did not even tell his son that he was going to be operated on.

Complications arose and he died. His wife sat holding his cellphone wanting to contact his friends, but Jonathan took the secret of his cellphone PIN number with him to his grave.

The fear-of-death phenomenon seems universal. 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.

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.

A decade 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, find meaning, reflect on what’s important and ask profound questions”.

Since 2012, these so-called death cafés have sprung up in 40 cities in the US. They provide a casual forum for people to meet once a month in a coffee shop. According to The New York Times, anyone of any age comes in response to Facebook announcements, storefront fliers, and what’s-on listings.

“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 organise a speaker on the topic. “Gracious living and dying” is the standing discussion topic of a Joburg 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 Joburg? Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll look for a venue that’s prepared to host us.

» helena.dolny@gmail.com

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