Death Café seeks to dismiss stigma

Published 10:28 am Tuesday, April 11, 2017

By Anna M. Bultrowicz

Special to The Farmville Herald

Shelby Kirillin

A death of a friend, a family member or a member of the community can be a traumatic experience, and one that many people find difficult to talk about.

To help people deal with their loss of a loved one, Longwood University recently hosted Farmville’s first Death Café.

A Death Café is a non-profit forum where strangers gather to talk about death in a respectful and confidential manner. Death Cafés have no explicit agendas and the events are not intended as counseling sessions. They are designed to begin a conversation about death.

Although Longwood’s Death Café was not planned in relation to the recent deaths of Longwood University student Jeremy Bennett and Hampden-Sydney College student H. Carter Cole, being able to talk about death in a safe environment can be therapeutic, organizers said.

“Talking about (death) is a good thing in general. It can feel cathartic,” said Dr. Katherine McCleskey, who co-hosted the recent event with Dr. Maureen Walls-McKay. McCleskey is an assistant professor of counselor education and Walls-McKay is a licensed clinical psychologist and the director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

During the event — a collaboration between Longwood’s counselor education program and CAPS — strangers gathered in small groups facilitated by graduate

Dr. Maureen Walls-McKay

students of the counseling programs. While the facilitators had backgrounds in counseling, they did not serve as counselors. Those in attendance were free to talk about any and all aspects of death.

“I would say it’s therapeutic, but not therapy,” said Walls-Mckay.

“I went to almost every coffee shop in Richmond, and it was hard to find a coffee shop that would even allow me to hold something called a ‘Death Café,’” said Shelby Kirillin, who hosted the first official Death Café in Central Virginia last year.

Dr. Katherine McCleskey

“It’s one of the last taboo topics that our society has,” said Kirillin, a certified end-of-life doula. “We openly talk about sex and everything else, but no one wants to talk about death.”

While many people are familiar with the concept of a birth doula, an end-of-life doula is person who helps people on their way out of this world, according to Kirillin. Half of what an end-of-life doula does, she said, is to help their clients die with integrity. This can involve steps, including helping clients plan their own funerals — a process that is often stressful for loved ones to handle. The other half of Kirillin’s job is to offer community support.

“I’ve hosted six or seven Death Cafés in Richmond, and one in Maryland,” said Kirillin.

The Death Café is the brainchild of Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid. Underwood runs the café from London on a volunteer basis, but the events have become a worldwide phenomenon. Today, Death Cafés are held in 47 countries.

“Remembering death makes me value things while they are there, and this has been very beneficial for my relationships,” said Underwood. “Death Cafés show that there are many people who find engaging with death useful.”

According to McCleskey, about 40 people showed up to the event at Longwood, which ran from 6:30-8 p.m. Overall, after debriefing with one another after the event, the hosts and facilitators felt that the Death Café was an overwhelming success. They hope to be able to host the event at least annually in the future, and to have it open to both Longwood students and staff and Farmville residents alike.

“The more you realize that life is finite, the better your life can be,” said Kirillin. “You don’t take anything for granted, and I think that’s what I’ve learned from my 20 years of nursing … That’s actually the goal of the Death Café. The goal is to create better living through talking about death.”