Would You Attend A ‘Death Cafe?’ The Meet-Ups Helping Kiwis Talking About Death & Dying

For people who want to talk about death and dying, it can be hard to know where to turn. That’s why the initiative of the death cafe is helping Kiwis talk about a taboo, often scary subject.

In terms of words that you might not expect to find next to each other, ‘death café’ is right up there. But it’s an overseas movement that has just started in Aotearoa over the past few years, and it is part of the activities delivered by Honohono Tātou Katoa – a community-centric initiative supported by Mercy Hospice – since June 2023.

Regularly at different locations around the country, a death café is hosted to allow both regulars and newcomers to sit around and talk about death.

“We talk a lot about a good death looks like,” says Lana Petrovic, an equity advocate for Honohono Tātou Katoa. “Is that one where you’re at home, is that one where you’re at hospice? There are also lots of conversations around social isolation.”

“A lot about dying well is how you live in the lead-up to that, so a lot of people – especially as they get older – start to realise, ‘If I’m alone, and something happens to me, what does my death look like? What will a terminal diagnosis look like for me?’ It starts bringing up a lot of questions.”

Lana is one of the organisers behind the Mt Roskill death café, which meets once a month at the Mt Roskill library. There are also regular death cafes at Auckland Art Gallery, and Birkenhead, as well as multiple meet-ups around the country (you can find more information here).

At the Mt Roskill death café, there’s always around 10-15 people – a handful of whom are regulars and many of whom are drop-ins. There is no pressure to talk, Lana says, you can just listen to the conversations and get to know the death café.

“It’s very calming and empowering to talk to others about a taboo topic, it reduces the feelings of being an outsider because you’re thinking about these things and asking these questions,” she says. “I see people open up more when they hear what everyone else is asking – it’s very informal, and you can stay anonymous.”

The demographic of attendees is generally mixed in terms of gender, and while the members tend to skew above 50, Lana says there are always people in their 40s or younger as well. “Our project manager Maria did a death café at Earth Beat Festival, and she had over 50 people attend; the majority of which were under 40,” Lana says.

There have been times when people have brought along their older children as well. Basically, anyone who has curiosity around death and dying and wants to know they’re not alone in these questions. Some of the people have worked in the medical sector, as a nurse or doctor or in palliative care, so there’s some expert opinion mixed in with general discussion.

The death café is generally not for people who have recently experiences a bereavement – Lana recommends places like The Grief Centre for more immediate losses – but it is for people who have experienced loss in the long-term, who have seen behind the veil and find they need a space to discuss what they’ve experienced.

“It’s about creating a safe space for people to get together and talk about death and dying, to maybe talk about the things they can’t discuss with their friends and family,” Lana says.

By having these discussions, it helps break down the taboo around death and also the fear. For something that comes for us all, death is still kept under a shroud of mystery. It is easy to be afraid of death – of dying alone, of dying in pain, of it being a traumatising experience to go through. This is where the palliative care professionals can allay those fears – explaining that death is usually a very peaceful experience – and help reduce the fear. Everybody wins, which is good, because… everybody dies.

“I’ve likened it to studying for an exam,” Lana says of her own experience with death café. “If death is the big exam, I want to have studied for it and not just winged it! Now when I think about death, I feel a sense of peace and calm – I feel so much more empowered. I know what kind of questions to ask, what kind of support to ask for. I know what resources out there.”

This is a big change – like so many people, Lana says she used to be very superstitious around death. “I felt like if I talked about it, it would happen,” she says. “But part of that fear was being super unprepared. When I started at Mercy Hospice, I realised it’s so much better to talk about it, and think about it, because there’s absolutely no escaping it.”

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