Tea, cake and dying go together at 'Death Cafe'

Tucson group meets regularly to discuss tough topic in a fearless, friendly way
2013-04-07T00:00:00Z Tea, cake and dying go together at 'Death Cafe'Patty Machelor Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 07, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Your inevitable death.

How's that for a downer of a topic?

Not necessarily, say Tucsonans who have been attending the new Friendly and Fearless Tucson Death Cafe.

In a community room at Bookmans on East Grant Road, a group of 22 gathered last Tuesday to talk about dying, yes, but also about living.

"Are you making decisions based on fear and obligations and commitments, or are you listening to your heart and your soul?" said Cindy Whitehead, a hospice nurse and co-facilitator, in describing a core aspect of the Death Cafe.

"How am I living my life today, and how it is going to feel when I am facing my own death?"

Tucson is the third city in the United States to begin a death cafe, a Swiss concept started by a sociologist, Bernard Crettaz, who called it "Cafe Mortel." The idea has caught on now in other European countries as well as Australia and Canada.

The Tucson group started last December and meets once a month.

In May, they will take leave of the meeting room for a crematory in Tubac. The field trip plan: Eat well, gaze at the night sky and, again, share ideas, fears, dreams.

Death-talk stigma

It was a death that brought together Whitehead and Kristine Bentz, the cafe's lead facilitator.

Elizabeth Blue, 22, was an accomplished poet and creative writing student at the University of Arizona who died in September, less than a year after being diagnosed with lymphoma.

Whitehead, a friend of Blue's mother, Lucia Maya, provided respite help while Bentz, a celebrant with Sweetgrass Ceremonies, assisted with the family's home funeral.

Bentz had read about Europe's death cafes a few months earlier and asked Whitehead to join her. The longtime nurse readily agreed.

"Once I started doing hospice nursing, I was just completely overwhelmed with the denial that's out there and just how difficult it is for people to accept themselves or a loved one reaching that point," Whitehead said.

"I see how people don't even want to talk about it."

Tucson's cafe, Whitehead said, is about talking about it.

Death as a part of life

Bentz started Tuesday's session by softly ringing a bell and welcoming newcomers: "This is the life-affirming death cafe," she said.

At the start of each session, as people pour a cup of tea or take a slice of cake, Bentz emphasizes that the cafe is not about leading anyone to a particular conclusion.

"That's one of the big underpinnings. If you are there with an agenda, pack it up," she said. "And this is not a place for white-hot bereavement. It's not a grief support circle."

There were two men and 20 women there Tuesday, ranging in age from college students to seniors .

Their first task this time around is a death anxiety quiz. Then it's time for small group discussions on the results.

De Vie Weinstock scored a low three points out of a possible, high-anxiety 15. She wasn't surprised.

"My understanding is that we're not separate from death. Death is entirely intermingled with life," she said to the women in her group. "We start dying when we're born."

Chatter from the small groups includes pain management, avoiding unnecessary medical interventions and fear of dying in a hospital.

Many scored higher on the quiz than they thought they would. Yet, overall, people were were not so much afraid to die as they were unhappy with the idea of not living anymore.

Kati Standefer attended her first cafe meeting in February, and was there again Tuesday.

"It's comforting to speak with others who don't necessarily believe death is something to be staved off at all costs, from those who have been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness to those who work in advocacy for the dying," said Standefer, who has cardiac arrhythmia, which she said can lead to sudden death.

"As a writer, I find it clarifying to see what I'm thinking about death by chatting with strangers. Conversations with those in my own life do not necessarily have that effect, as they are more personally afraid of my death."

Taking control

Lucia Maya welcomes talking about Elizabeth, and Elizabeth's death. Reaching out to Bentz, to Whitehead, helped her learn things she didn't know or think about before her daughter became terminally ill.

"When Elizabeth died, we took care of her body. We cleaned and dressed her," she said. "When I realized we had the option to do it ourselves, I wondered why I would ever want someone else to take care of my daughter's body."

Maya was also there when her daughter's body was placed in the crematorium.

"When I first heard that was a possibility, I couldn't imagine being able to do that, but once she died …" she said, her voice trailing off before she continued. "It was very intimate, and it felt like a real completion for us, as difficult as it was."

(Maya blogs about her daughter, life, love and death at luminousblue5.com).

Not surprisingly, Maya is very enthusiastic about Tucson's new death cafe.

"The more people feel comfortable talking about it and sharing about death in their lives," she said, "the more our fear will lessen and the more natural it will become to take care of loved ones when they are dying and to take care of their bodies, too, after they have passed."

"My understanding is that we're not separate from death. Death is entirely intermingled with life."

De Vie Weinstock, Death Cafe participant

Want to learn more?

The Friendly and Fearless Tucson Death Cafe generally meets from 4 to 5:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month in the Bookmans community room, 1930 E. Grant Road.

To learn more, and to check on any meeting changes, go to www.deathcafe.com/2012/11/death-cafe-tucson-arizona.html or learn more on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TucsonDeathCafe

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or pmachelor@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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