In May of 2017, as Michelle Chang was nearing the conclusion of her freshman year at Stanford, a close friend from her hometown of Walnut, California, was hit by a car on the freeway after pulling over to inspect the damage from a minor accident. Adib Hasnat was killed. Chang, who was studying psychology, underwent what she calls a clichéd wake-up call: “Experiencing that first loss that was really, really unexpected and sudden and felt unfair made me start thinking harder about big questions about life and death.”
That summer, in part to begin facing those questions, Chang started an informal book club with friends in Stanford. Together, they read memoirs written by people who were dying. The conversations they had during those meetings started to transform Chang’s life, guiding her toward an interest in death and mortality that continued to bloom when she returned to school.
“I found that the context of mortality invited such a richness and authenticity and depth to my relationships and my friendships.”
“I found that the context of mortality invited such a richness and authenticity and depth to my relationships and my friendships,” says Chang, now 20. That return to school, in fact, is how she first learned about the Death Café movement, after a professor briefly mentioned it on the first day of classes. “I remember just sitting there being like… ‘Oh my goodness, who goes to these, what do people talk about at these, and how can I find out more?’” Those questions would eventually lead her to a journey spanning thousands of miles and ten Death Cafés.
A Death Café, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is a gathering of people, often held at a home or a coffee shop (but they can be hosted anywhere, as long as entry is free), where attendees enjoy refreshments while participating in an open discussion about death. Chang notes that Death Cafés are ideology-free and agenda-free, and although Death Cafés are similar to what you might see in a group therapy session, they’re not meant to be grief support or therapy. There are many things a Death Café can become, but at its core, it’s simply a conversation — one centered on death, mortality, and human connection.
When we talk on the phone, Chang is midway through her trip, in Fargo, North Dakota. She’s just hosted the first Death Café North Dakota has ever had. Reflecting on her first-ever Death Café experience, in Palo Alto, California, Chang says she was surprised — by how much she was surprised. She’d already done some research and interviewed Death Café hosts and attendees; she thought she knew what to expect. But hearing about something is not the same as experiencing it, as she learned.
One of the ten attendees that day was a sixty-year-old man who’d been diagnosed with AIDS nine years before. He shared his story and talked about the experience of grappling with the knowledge that his life would be cut short. “He had this moment of realization where he connected the dots with how beautiful his life story was and where it fit in with his family narrative, and he just sat in that circle, sobbing,” says Chang. “We were just holding space with him, and bearing witness to what a profound moment that realization was for him.”
Her journey, which is funded by a Stanford Beagle II grant, has taken her all over the U.S. West so far, and with each destination, she’s noticed similarities. Death Café attendees, she says, are overwhelmingly composed of older white women. And across the board, the discussions are difficult and scary for those involved — even in Albuquerque, where Chang expected more openness to death-centric conversations because of the prominence of Dia de Los Muertos and other death-related imagery in the local culture. It’s even harder, she says, for attendees to start those conversations outside of the Death Café space.
“People always say in Death Cafés that talking about death doesn’t make you any closer to it…. But it’s a scary thing to actually approach in practice.”
“Especially with loved ones, family and friends, the idea of thinking about their death is really terrifying,” says Chang. “People always say in Death Cafés that talking about death doesn’t make you any closer to it; it can help you find more peace. But it’s a scary thing to actually approach in practice.” When a personal relationship with someone is on the line, the stakes of a conversation about death can seem a lot higher. Generational attitudes also contribute to these challenges; in the many Death Cafés she has attended, Chang has heard stories from folks whose parents avoided having conversations with them about death. She says that some baby boomers she has met were told as children that a deceased parent was “on vacation,” or were not told about serious illnesses until a death actually occurred.
Even today, think of the simple, popular narrative given when a beloved pet dies: It’s “Rover is on a big green farm with lots of other dogs,” not “Rover was very old in dog years, and he passed away, and that’s a natural part of life.” It’s never too late, however, to normalize conversations about death, and that’s part of what makes Death Cafés so special for Chang. “One woman I met was talking about her brother who died of drug abuse, and how that was such a forbidden topic in her family,” she says. “She was near tears as she was talking about it for the first time, but that was a really powerful moment for her in knowing that her feelings and fears and all those emotions were validated and were important in their own right.”
For Chang herself, the experience has transformed her own relationship with death. She’s been able to talk with her parents about death, which was a difficult and intimidating challenge for her, and she’s connected with people of all ages through discussions about mortality. More than anything, she has gained a sense of gratitude that has become a foundational part of how she lives her life.
More than anything, she has gained a sense of gratitude that has become a foundational part of how she lives her life.
“When you realize that the line between being alive in this moment and not being alive in this moment is so much closer than we think, that immediately imbues everything with such a deep and profound sense of gratitude,” says Chang. It’s changed her perspective on life and allowed her to focus on what she values most, like human connection. “The fact that Death Cafés can end spontaneously with people hugging each other, or feeling like they’ve made new friends, helps broaden our ability to empathize with different experiences and perspectives,” she says.
The broadening of perspectives was part of Chang’s motivation behind embarking on the journey in the first place. “I’m definitely trying to bring it to places that have never had it before, hopefully helping other diverse voices in the Death Café conversation to be included as well,” she says. “Obviously, death is a universal condition. If everyone has a one hundred percent mortality rate, then what voices and what stories are being left out of the Death Café conversation?”
The younger you are, the more afraid you probably are to engage with death and dying. Not only have younger people had, on average, less experience with confronting the deaths of loved ones, but they also are able to brush off their own mortality as a faraway thing to deal with later in life. So younger voices, more often than not, are not included in Death Café conversations, or in any conversations that engage with death. Chang hopes to change that.
“I’m trying to start from the courage of small things and critical connections — beginning with my friends. From holding our informal memoirs-on-dying book club to keeping them regularly updated on my learnings during this trip, I’ve been able to talk about death with them in a way that feels personal and relevant to a young person,” says Chang. “Being informally known as the ‘death girl’ among my friends means that they will spontaneously send me articles or reflections on death, and the discussions that evolve from these moments have been so special to me. I’m especially looking forward to returning to Stanford at the end of my trip and hosting my final death cafe of the summer there, with so many of my friends present.”
“I’ve found such a beautiful picture of what it means to be a part of this life thing with so many other beautiful people.”
Chang’s biggest goal has already been reached: She’s doing the thing; “the thing” being this road trip. And for now, she’s just trying to appreciate every moment of what she’s experiencing. Still, she looks forward to being able to reflect on the journey, to synthesize her experience and search for meaning and patterns. She also hopes to create a zine — a small, independently produced magazine — full of photos, stories, and quotes she’s collected, which she wants to send to the people she’s met along the way. That’s in addition to the paper she will complete as part of her grant. (Click here for an overview of her journey, in her own words, on the Facebook page she created.)
“I’m really excited that I’ve made so many connections throughout this trip that I will be able to continue to keep up,” says Chang. “I’ve found such a beautiful picture of what it means to be a part of this life thing with so many other beautiful people.”
About the Writer
Katja Vujić, 22, was born in Zagreb, Croatia, and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a writer interested in stories that dig into the complexities of human life. “And” is one of her favorite words because it is the bridge between realities that seem to contradict one another. She loves cats, books, intersectional feminism, and bread, among other things. She was the editor in chief of Your Magazine, and has been published in the Boston Globe and the Improper Bostonian. You can find her on twitter @katja_vujic and on Instagram @kv.jpg.