Death Café: my first experience

Friends talking over coffee

When you’re craving to talk with friends about death but don’t know whether those friends would welcome such a conversation, where do you go?

Founded in September 2011, Death Café is one of the world’s largest community engagement projects around death, where people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death.

With the aim of increasing awareness of death and help people make the most of their (finite) lives, a Death Café is a group directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is a discussion group rather than a bereavement support or counselling session.

My very first experience of attending a Death Café

While I’d known about it for over five years and hadn’t yet managed to attend one of the many Death Cafés that take place in over 30 countries around the world, I happened to come across a poster for it in my local library this week – Wealdstone Death Café was taking place that very evening – I signed up immediately, not quite knowing whether it would be my cup of tea.

As my first ever Death Café, I found it to be an excellent experience, surrounded by new friends, all able to talk comfortably about death and topics closely related to death, in a safe environment.

The event helped to reaffirm and enrich my existing views and feelings about the inevitability of death and how to embrace the valuable gift of life.

It was a well facilitated event and we had a decent sized respectful group who felt comfortable delving into personal stories, challenges and possible shifts in perspective.

If someone told me they were thinking of attending a Death Café, I would say: “Absolutely consider attending if you are looking for a safe space to discuss and explore the topic of death and what it means to live. Be prepared to listen with an open heart, to ask questions thoughtfully and to refrain from giving advice or pushing your own views. You will probably even make some new friends!”

Find an event near you: Forthcoming Death Cafés

Hosting your own Death Café

Death Cafés are always offered:

  • On a not for profit basis
  • In an accessible, respectful and confidential space
  • With no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action
  • Alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food – and cake!

The team at Death Café have produced an incredible easy-to-follow how-to guide on hosting your own Death Café. If you decide to set one up on the back of reading this article, I would love to hear how it goes – drop me a note!

7 years, 7 lessons

Written by Suraj Shah. Inspired by greatness.

Today marks seven years since mum died. I’ll share with you seven lessons that I have learnt since that time that help me to lead a calmer and more purposeful life.

Currently I write from a small village in the heart of Gujarat in India. I am a third of way into a ten week stay at the Raj Saubhag Ashram and am about to retreat into a week of solitude in silence.

As it is the first anniversary of mum’s death since 2006 where I am without family around me, I write with the understanding that you, my dear readers, my friends, are sitting right here next to me.

The past seven years

Since mum passed away in September 2006, there have been many ups and downs in my life, with a whole array of emotions and occasional moments of clarity.

  • Love: I met a wonderfully compassionate yet feisty woman, fell in love with her and got married. We’ve been through an emotional rollercoaster, just like every other couple, but now we’re closer than ever.

  • Family: As mum got more ill and when she passed away, I found myself increasing the distance with the family. But now I’ve allowed myself to get closer to them and have realised how important family really is. There have been many family events in the past seven years, weddings in particular, where mum has been sorely missed.

  • Work: I’ve been through various types of jobs and temporary roles in the past seven years, from supporting small businesses to go digital, through to sales, to stacking DVDs on shelves and most recently digital training. In all this work, nomatter how outwardly mundane or challenging the task may have been, I’ve learnt some great skills and met some incredibly smart and good natured people along the way. Yes, and equally important, I’ve brought in an income.

  • Spirituality: As mum’s health was quickly declining, I had come across twelve reflections to cultivate detachment, the first of which helped me to tell apart the permanent from the impermanent in life. This led to further exploration and introspection, and I found myself surrounded by an incredibly humble group of friends who understand who they are at their core, yet lead simple pragmatic lives grounded in spiritual values.

I share this so you can see what can happen after a significant loss, and how life takes many twists and turns. But somehow, you find a way through it.

Lesson learnt

While my mum’s health was deteriorating and in the months and years after she died, I started to question why events occur the way they do for us and what the point of it all is.

As I started to ask myself these questions, I navigated towards people who could sincerely help answer them, or help me find out for myself. This is still work in progress, but here’s where I am so far.

From all the ups and downs and changes in all areas of my life over the past seven years, let me share with you lessons I now try to embrace that help me lead a calm and purposeful life.

Lesson 1 – Everything changes

Everything you hold in your hands, everything you can touch, see, hear, taste or smell, will one day change or will go. What was once formed by bringing together various elements will one day fall apart or transform into something else.

Change is inevitable.

Witness the changes. Be an observer and let the change take place as it needs to. Just don’t let it bring you up or pull you down.

People and items will come and go in your life. Make the most of the time with them when they are there, but don’t grip on so tightly that it tears you up when you separate. Because it WILL come apart… and that’s ok.

Lesson 2 – Know the priorities of your relationships

Figure out the key people in your life and focus most of your energy on them. For most people it will be:

1. Your parents: Those who gave birth to you, who nurtured you, who gave you the foundations to lead the life you live now.

2. Your siblings: Those you grew up with and may have fought with, but who you now laugh with, who will be your immediate support and who will need your support during difficult times. This also includes any brother-in-laws or sister-in-laws.

3. Your spouse: The one you share your life with. The first one you say “good morning” to and the last one you say “goodnight” to each day. The one you trust with your heart, share all your secrets with, and hold each other firmly enough through life’s ups and downs.

4. Your children: The ones you brought into this world, who you nurture, who you are there for whenever they need you. The ones who get your love and your guidance and your approval, always.

It sounds obvious, but how many of us truly spend quality time fulfilling our duty towards those who are most important to us and those who depend on us?

When I realised that I was spending far too much time trying to prove myself and make myself look good in front of a large group of casual acquaintances at the expense of serving my closest relationships, I ditched those channels. I got rid of my smartphone, I deactivated my Facebook account, and I jumped off WhatsApp.

I may start to use all these again, but only when I can use them responsibly and can first take care of my responsibilities towards those who are closest to me.

Lesson 3 – Every situation is optimal

“Jeh thaay, ee saara maate thaay chhe (Whatever happens, happens for the best)” – Laxmiben Harakhchand Dodhia (my grandma)

Every single thing you face in life, no matter how demanding it may be, is actually conducive to you leading a calm and purposeful life.

You may not see the good in it yet, and it may not go the way you want, but the situation that has arisen is perfect for your ultimate happiness. You just have to respond to it appropriately.

Be optimistic and stay positive, nomatter what life throws at you.

Further reading: Lead an optimal way of life

Lesson 4 – Seek out eveyone’s qualities

When your loved one dies, it may crush your heart to think that you’ll never be able to see them again, to hold them, to hear them laugh or to wipe their tears. You may have keepsakes – perhaps an item of clothing or a book or a gift you received from them or gave to them – but it’s never the same. These all fall apart and eventually leave you with emptiness.

But there is something that you can always keep hold of firmly in your heart – something that can never leave you, nomatter the outside forces.

It’s their qualities. These shine through, long after they’ve gone. These you can hold up in the air and be proud of. Qualities are everlasting.

In a similar way, with all those people you come into contact with in your day-to-day life, seek out their qualities and imbibe them in your presence.

When you focus on the qualities of those you admire, you become that yourself. It grows within you and you may not even realise it.

It may be that your view of how someone should be may not align with how they’re behaving. So accept them for who they are, notice what is wonderful about them, and appreciate that. Just accept, notice and appreciate.

Be grateful for the greatness that makes up your world.

Lesson 5 – Speak up, but remain calm

For the longest time I would be passive in the way I engaged with the world. If something didn’t go the way I expected, I would just sit to the side and not want to rock the boat. But within me was a different story. I would be quietly frustrated, at times furious, and let this bubble up within me. Then I would be horrible to the people who love me. I believe the psychologists call this “passive-aggressive”.

Now I’ve learnt to speak up where appropriate. It doesn’t mean make a big drama over every little thing, but it does mean observing how the people in your life are behaving towards you and then speaking with them about it if required.

But most importantly, remain calm, or don’t say a word. Anything said with frustration or anger will bite you a hundred times in return.

Lesson 6 – Log your inner gremlins

Yes, we all have them. Our inner gremlins make us horrible people at times, but with awareness we can overcome them.

These gremlins are grouped into four main categories:

  • anger: Anytime something doesn’t go our way, we become angry, or mildly frustrated. This hurts those we love and it hurts us.
  • greed: Anytime we are not content with what we have, we become greedy for more. This greed builds on itself and before long it destroys everything we hold dear in our lives.

  • ego: Anytime we think we have done something great, our ego inflates and we become smug and annoying to others. Anytime we are criticised and can’t calmly learn from it, our ego deflates, we get upset and we hurt the ones we love.

  • deceit: We lie when we want something and the truthful approach takes more work. Lies hurt those we love and lying hurts us.

Every evening, before going to bed, take a little time out to log these gremlins in your notebook. Think about (i) the situation that caused it, (ii) how you reacted to the situation, (iii) how you felt about that and (iv) what you resolve to do next time.

Over time, you’ll notice these gremlins start to reduce in intensity and lighten the load you carry. With awareness comes lightness.

Lesson 7 – Life is unpredictable

We typically take life for granted, but none of us know how long we each have to live. We may live another 60 years, or we may take our last breath this very evening.

Life can be short and extremely unpredictable. You probably know that better than anyone else.

Ask yourself what this life is all about, for you. What’s the purpose with which you wish to lead your life?

Further reading: Last day living

Moving forward

My experiences over the past seven years and the people who have been a part of my life have shaped how I now see the world and how best to live within it.

These lessons are ones I’m trying to apply to my life every day – I have yet to master them fully, but it’s work in progress with the view that they’ll make me a better man.

I hope some of these may be useful in your life as you navigate your way forward following the loss of a loved one.

Live with challenging situations

Written by Suraj Shah. Inspired by greatness.

When you lose a loved one it may feel like life keeps hurling challenging situations at you. It will feel overwhelming, but there is a way to manage it.

The snowball of events following a loss

It may be that you’ve lost a partner, and then have to deal with the loss of income, having to manage all the housework and all the paperwork, and then having to attend a huge family event where the one you love is sorely missed.

Life keeps pounding you – again and again and again. You feel worse and worse, with your head clouded, and the weight of the world on your shoulders.

You may cry and cower and plead for someone, or God, to take this situation away from you.

But the situation is certainly still there, because that’s how life is. However hard it may be to believe, all that we experience in life is caused by what we have done in the past. There’s no getting away from it – the only way to resolve it is to dealt with. Somehow….

So what do you do?

How to live with challenging situations

When things get really tough, it may feel like there is no clear resolution. But actually, there are an abundance of options available to help you through it.

Better still, they can largely be grouped into three key areas.

1. Dodge it

Dodging the situation means to move away from it. To pick yourself out of the situation and place yourself elsewhere.

Sometimes the situation hurts just a little too much and all you want to do is run. That’s ok – it’s one option.

  • If you feel claustrophic being in the house where your loved one was, you may choose to take a holiday in a different country, away from everything back home.

  • If you are struggling to make polite conversation with that annoyingly nosy neighbour who is approaching you, you may just cross the road when you see them coming.

  • If you feel suffocated when surrounded by family at a large event, you may take a walk outside on your own or with someone you can comfortably talk with. Or perhaps briefly sit alone in the spare room with your eyes closed.

To dodge the situation means to somehow duck from it, to avoid it, to shelter yourself from it. In certain circumstances, it perfectly ok to do – but dodging it doesn’t always free you from it. Instead, it just keeps it at bay, temporarily.

2. Change it

An alternative to dodging the situation is to change it.

Changing a situation means to do something about it. To take action with the intent to change it’s form into something else.

  • If a year after the loss you feel that a large house is too much to maintain and manage financially, then you may choose to sell your house and move into a smaller cosier place.
  • If the loss has shifted your priorities in life and it feels like your job has become unfulfilling, you may choose to apply for a job elsewhere or perhaps take up voluntary work.

  • If your son or daughter is getting married and planning the wedding feels overwhelming, then you could list out all the areas and tasks and consider who in your circle of family and friends you could delegate it all out to.

To change the situation means to do whatever’s in your power to make the situation different from what it is.

But sometimes, you’ll find that it’s just not possible to run from the situation or to change it…

3. Accept it

When dodging the situation or changing it is not an option in your case, you’ll want to find a way to accept it.

Accepting a situation means to see it for what it is, without getting emotionally caught up with it. It means to rise above the situation and observe it, like a witness, without judgement.

Close your eyes, observe where the feeling of burden resides and gradually let it pass. Then place your focus on something that will empower you to move forward in life.

  • If you are the only one who is in a position to arrange the funeral and other related events, then you will want to take a deep breath, make a list of all that needs to be done, and systematically make arrangements.
  • If you are left with an almost empty bank account, you will want to understand what you need to live, you will want to take stock of what you do have and then explore ways to take care of your financial needs.

  • If you are left as the sole parent to a pair of toddlers, you will need to accept the situation for what it is, giving them the support they need to live bravely with love in their hearts.

To accept a situation means to be ok with the discomfort, to welcome it warmly into your life and to let it pass naturally when it’s ready. Over time, it gets easier to manage. With that brings lightness, calmness, and purpose.

Live with challenging situations – your way

A place I personally would like to get to when dealing with challenging situations in my own life is to first accept it, then respond to it appropriately (without the emotional ups and downs and the damage that leads to), and rarely to dodge it.

But that’s work in progress.

There is no right or wrong way to deal with the struggles of day-to-day life following the loss of a loved one. It certainly doesn’t have to be in the order shared so far.

Do what feels right to you and let me know how you’re getting on.