Death Over Dinner
A medium for promoting conversation about death and its role in society.
Death has become one of humanity’s greatest ironies — it seems so unnatural for us to picture ourselves in those moments before death, our bodies wrapped in an eerily white hospital blanket and plugged with various tubes pumping various fluids in and out of our failing veins. We cannot, and choose not to, picture ourselves dying. And yet, as it always has been, death remains one of the precious few situations we will all face. We will all die. It is the natural ending to life. No matter the road we take, we all will find ourselves one day in the same position, and we all one day will take a great leap into darkness.
We as millennials have aged alongside exponentially advancing technological systems. We have seen life expectancies prolonged in accordance with advancing healthcare to accommodate an elder baby boomer population reaching retirement age. We have seen brilliant research put into treatments for cancers and diseases, ones with previously severe prognoses — death sentences — that have now become manageable chronic illnesses. Unfortunately, freak accidents and unforeseeable circumstances still ravish previously happy lives and always will do so; however, for many of us, death can be postponed, stored deeply in our thoughts for a future conversation. As a result, conversations about death — a taboo word to younger generations — cause discomfort. Because we only talk about death when necessary, when death has become imminent to ourselves or to someone in our lives, we do not understand how to feel when it comes unexpectedly. Or how we should feel. Or if there is someone else feeling the same way. The sharp stab of death coming acutely into our lives overwhelms us, and it can seem as if life has lost all sense of logic. A few weeks ago, I lost a close friend from high school. His life ended abruptly, and the loss struck me deeply. It confused me, and it troubled me. And, because I am away from my high school friends and family while at college, I wanted nothing more than to sit with somebody and be able to talk through my thoughts.
Death over Dinner came at exactly the right time. Organized by a friend of mine, Chapel Hill’s Death over Dinner was based off a currently trending event — the “death café.” The idea balances comfort with discomfort by providing a welcoming environment for groups of people to engage in conversations about death. The eventual goal is to begin accepting death as a common fact of life by comfortably bringing it into common dinner conversation. It gives individuals the opportunity to express grief, ask questions, and listen to others share their own stories. In doing so, it helps participants feel more comfortable addressing their issues with death in the future as well.
That weekend, I found myself sitting in a circle of 15, sharing appetizers and drinks as I caught up with a few close friends and met a few of the new strangers who would be joining as well. And then, as the small talk diminished, we looked around and noticed the anticipation shared between us all. And, after a very slight moment of hesitation, the conversation began.
We first pieced together a collection of stories — those of people who experienced tragedy long ago, those of people experiencing it for the first time, those of people who had always feared death, and those of people who had not. We bonded as we shared the intimacies of those thoughts which we previously had told a very select few. And at first, it was tough, and it was emotional, and it was heavy. But that was what we needed, because, in each other’s difficulty, we found solace. After we all had shared that first thought, a new question was asked: “Have you ever thought about your own death?”
And by this point, the conversation felt amazingly natural. Many people had indeed thought about their own deaths, picturing themselves peaceful and happy, content with the decisions they had made throughout their lives. We were able to take a lighthearted spin in the conversation, and laugh, as some had wanted to “go out with a bang” (until a recently traumatic roller coaster at the state fair changed that philosophy), and even one (my personal favorite) had always dreamed that when the time came, when he could feel it in his bones, he would get up, head outside, run wildly and free into the forest, and never come back.
The dinner began with intertwining circles of friends coming together to discuss an uncomfortable topic, and it ended with those previously strangers laughing and sharing and bonding over mutual fears and similar reactions and unique stories — all while enjoying excellent food. It blessed me with an incredible atmosphere to grieve over my loss and to feel okay with grieving, to balance shared grievance with hearty laughter and friendship. Although death cafes are a new idea and are not currently widespread, the mission behind them can transfer to everyday conversation. We should be able to talk about death more frequently. It surrounds us all and always will, and, subsequently, sharing with others can lead to the forming of intimate bonds. Maybe our society would fear death less if we spent more time in reflection, if we were able to speak our thoughts and fears and hear the warm support of those who are important to us. And maybe discussing the topic with our family and friends before the time has come when we truly need to discuss them will make those future conversations easier and more comfortable.
And so when our time comes, when we can feel it in our bones, and when we find ourselves heading outside, running swiftly and wildly into the forest with no plan to return, we are ready.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on December 28, 2014.