Grief in the Time of COVID-19

Gatherings to discuss concepts of death seem right for current conditions.

Posted Jul 29, 2020

Photo, K. Ramsland
Edvard Munch 1893
Source: Photo, K. Ramsland

The idea of a death café appealed to me. You sit around drinking coffee or tea, eat pastries and cake, and talk about those you’ve lost, along with your ideas about mortality. It sounded like a grief group meets an intro course to Existentialism. It turns out to be much more.

The death café I visited with my sister was in a college town, just on the edge of campus. This location suggested an opportunity for provocative discussion. We learned what was involved (there are rules and limits to participant numbers) and signed up for a Saturday morning gathering. I purchased a hazelnut latte at the counter and found a seat. Several different tables were set up in two upstairs rooms for discussion. Ours had six places. Most of the participants were single, but couples came as well.

The theory is that we’re all joined as humans in grief, so we’re not really strangers. The death cafes are part of a movement to make death more approachable, so we can get such discussions out in the open and turn the fact of death into inspiration for improved living.

Having run grief groups for survivors of various traumas, I wondered if letting people gather to express their depression, PTSD, sleeplessness, and eating disorders without a trained guide was a good idea. As each of us shared our story, it became clear that one participant — a fiftyish woman — was a regular attendee. She’d been coming to the death café every week for several years, still processing the same loss of a partner as the one that had brought her here.

She spent a while describing her grief, with plenty of tears. Everyone listened politely. Several offered comfort. However, whenever the conversation invited someone else’s reason for being there, this woman grew upset. She’d refocus on her own needs. The gathering grew tedious and I wondered if another table would have been a better choice. It struck me that, without a guide, this arena could be used to indulge and wallow. From what I’ve read, many groups do work with guides. I wished we'd had one because others in the group had wanted to explore unique rituals and beliefs.

I’ve heard that some death café gatherings are happening on Zoom or another virtual platform. You get your coffee or tea at home and you sit at a computer in that Brady-bunch gallery of windows. Reportedly, this kind of regular check-in helps those who suffer from anxiety over the death tolls that news programs broadcast every day. And some have lost a loved one to COVID-19, or during it.

I did. My mother died just after it all erupted across the globe. She was in an assisted living facility. She’d been declining for a while, so I'd spent each visit over the past year as if it were the last. I'd never have imagined when I saw in her November 2019 that I wouldn't see her again in any form, due to the world's dramatic transformation. My final memory of her is her telling me, eye-to-eye, that she was dying. Although she was ready, she looked scared. I held her hand.

Since I was out of state, I was not allowed to enter when the end was near unless she went into hospice. When she did go in, she declined fast. I couldn’t get there in time. Because of COVID conditions, my siblings and I couldn't hug. We weren’t sure when we could get her cremated. We anxiously awaited word from the funeral home.

Then it was over. We had to receive her ashes curbside, like a food order. I’d never seen her body. We weren't allowed to gather as a family to grieve. Only a few of us, standing masked and well apart, were allowed at the cemetery to inter her ashes next to my father’s. It took about five minutes. Then, we had to leave. Again, no hugs. We could not enter her room to retrieve and hold her items. The experience was startling and surreal.

A death café might be just the place to process how strange this all is these days. What we've come to expect is now subject to many restrictions. And I know that others have had far worse experiences with death in the time of COVID, sometimes losing multiple relatives. We all need a place of respite.

I used to know a woman, Leilah, who operated Westgate: House of Death in New Orleans. You could come to the black-and-purple mansion to process loss or think about your own death — even to die, if the event was close. (Someone did.) Leilah, too, died during this pandemic, refusing medication for a painful condition because she’d decided to embrace death.

I think she’d have liked a death café. She might have even hosted one. At Westgate, she’d let people talk about things that others couldn’t bear to hear, like a decision to stop treatment, or the adoption of a bizarre grief ritual. She had the same philosophy as the death café movement: no judgment. Everyone processes death in their own way.

The first official Café Mortel opened in 2004, organized by Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist. This inspired another one in London in 2011. The concept was infectious, spreading quickly throughout Europe and America. There’s even a website, Deathcafe.com, proposed as a social franchise. “Our aim,” it says, “is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.” When I looked, they claimed 11,215 death cafés in 73 countries. The gatherings have been held in “a range of places including funky cafes, people's houses, cemeteries, a yurt, and the Royal Festival Hall.”

Attending is not about getting treatment for depression or a fix for grief too hard to endure. It’s simply to participate in a shared human experience with others and to let them address death in whatever form they like. They might read a poem or story, offer a piece of art, or just ask about others’ concepts or beliefs. Sometimes people find it difficult to talk with friends and family about life's termination. Here, they’ll find others willing to share tips, ideas, and experiences.

Many are grateful to find such a forum. I’d suggest a visit to the website to find a virtual café, read a blog, volunteer to host (they provide a guide), or peruse a list of discussion topics. I might even try it again. With so much talk of death in the news right now, the death café might be a good time-out.

References

Ramsland, K. (2001). Cemetery Stories. HarperCOLLINS.