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Finding Life in Death Cafes

Michelle Chang and the story behind the Death Cafe Roadtrip

By Katja Vujić

Michelle Chang, 20, is a psychology student in her third year at Stanford University in California’s Bay Area. She spent the summer of 2018 traveling across the United States, attending and hosting Death Cafés. She took a break mid-journey and spoke over the phone with The Bucket from a café in Fargo, North Dakota, about the experience.

How’s it going?

I’m pretty good. Hello from Fargo, North Dakota.

How did this all start?

It started a little over a year ago, when one of my friends from high school died in a very freak accident. I know it sounds a little bit cliché, that whenever someone close to you dies, how much of a wakeup call it is, but that definitely is what happened for me. I think experiencing that first loss, that was really, really unexpected and sudden and felt unfair, made me start thinking harder about big questions [of] life and death.

So what did you do?

That summer, I started an informal book club with my friends and peers, where we read a bunch of memoirs written by people who were dying. I think the coolest part of that book club, for me, was the conversations that I was able to have with my friends, and being able to have the privilege of hearing what resonated with my friends, what stuck out with them, how they were using these insights and questions to inform how they were approaching life – what does it mean to be alive? I found that the context of mortality invited such a richness and authenticity and depth to my relationships and my friendships, and that’s really where I started thinking a lot more seriously about how a conversation about death could really open up those spaces.

Can you tell me about what happened to your friend Adib and how it impacted you?

My friend Adib died in May of 2017. It was a freak accident, where he had gotten into a minor car accident in the middle of the night when it was raining, He pulled over to the shoulder of the freeway and got out of his car. He was inspecting his car when another car on the freeway hit him. It was so, so sudden and so unexpected, and felt so unfair, that it was such a freak moment. I spent a long time dealing with the arbitrariness of that death.

I see so much of Adib in the way that I am approaching this journey. One of my favorite things about Adib was this radical inclusivity that he embodied, and the way that everyone he met was always immediately a piece of home for him. There was no in-group or out-group; everyone was in. I think I see that spirit really carrying me through in how I’ve been approaching Death Café spaces and conversations and even all the beautiful people I’ve been able to meet outside of Death Cafés throughout this road trip. I’m carrying with me this sentiment of, “we’re all in it together.”

How did you first hear about Death Cafés?

Fall quarter at Stanford this past year, part of the curriculum [for one of my classes] talked about near-death experiences, and on the first day, when we were going over the syllabus, my professor mentioned briefly, “Yeah, we’ll be spending half a day on something called the Death Café movement.” She sort of explained what it was, and 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?”

I started off interviewing different local organizers and attendees of death cafés right in the Bay Area. Again, I had this honor of hearing story after story that was simple, yet profound and honest and vulnerable. I heard so many beautiful narratives of how these conversations about death opened up. New perspectives opened up, new meanings and insights, and I think the beauty of these conversations is being able to approach abstract and philosophical questions of life and death through the lens of real, lived experiences. I was really moved by that, and ended up, pretty shortly after, attending my very first Death Café in Palo Alto.

Can you tell me a little about that experience? Did anything surprise or challenge you?

Definitely. I went into it feeling like I had already heard stories about Death Cafés, and feeling like I kind of already got it, and was not expecting to be surprised at all but was one hundred percent wrong.

To set up what a Death Café looks and feels like – this particular one was set up in the office of a hospice, so it was kind of just a circle of chairs. There’s usually always light refreshments provided to make people feel like they’re nourishing their bodies as they’re talking about death, and that seems to help people be a little bit less scared. So it was a gathering of probably around ten of us, all pretty diverse, actually. We had one woman who was the host of the very first Death Café in Seoul, Korea. We had one person who had never thought about questions about death but just saw a flyer for this in the library and showed up, others who were hospice workers or nurses, so a lot of different perspectives and backgrounds coming into the space.

And do people talk about people they have lost, or worried they might lose?

Actually, Death Cafés are explicitly not supposed to be grief support groups or therapy groups or advice-giving groups; it’s really just come as you are and with the stories and experiences and questions that you have, and we will listen and engage with those.

For me, the moment that really feels sticky from that Death Café is this moment when the man who was sitting next to me, who was in his sixties, started sharing about his AIDS diagnosis, and he was talking about all the things that he was grappling with, knowing 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. It was such a privilege to be a part of that moment, and the Death Café ended with us spontaneously hugging each other, feeling supported and empowered in that community. As we were hugging each other, he said, “Wow, that was the first time that I’ve ever told a group of people I have AIDS,” and he was diagnosed nine years ago.

It was insane for me to realize that this is a person I met as a complete stranger an hour and a half ago, and for us to get to a point where he was sharing some of the rawest parts of what he was carrying was a testament to our shared humanity and our shared mortality. I remember driving home, back to campus, that night after the Death Café, and feeling like, Wow. That is what matters. That is the heart of something that I care about. That’s also how I realized I could totally spend the whole summer engaging in these conversations and hosting space for these conversations.

So tell me about your Death Café roadtrip. How did it come to be?

I found out about a grant that my school offers called the Beagle II Award, which is named after the ship that Charles Darwin took to sail across the world as he was coming up with his theory of evolution. It’s a really wonderful grant that [directs] you to travel in a creative way and engage in your intellectual vitality. I came up with the crazy idea of doing a road trip across the U.S, and hosting Death Café spaces, and engaging people in powerful conversations to get a broader picture of what a conversation about death looks like in the U.S.

What’s your plan?

I started in California and have been slowly making my way East. I’m going as East as Wisconsin, and then I’m going to make my way back, because I think going to the East Coast and then back to California would be kind of crazy.

It’s quite a journey.

Yeah. I’ve chosen a few places where I’ve stayed a little bit more long-term, just because in reflecting on this journey and what was important to me, I realized that I wanted quality over quantity – so really immersing myself in different communities and getting to know the character, the people there. Getting a better understanding of local culture was more important to me than making pit stops everywhere I possibly could.

How has your own relationship with death changed since becoming involved with the Death Café movement?

I’m definitely very comfortable talking about death and sharing Adib’s story, and I’ve been able to start bringing these conversations to the people I love, which has been the biggest change for me. I have friends who are now invested in this trip that I’m taking and want to hear updates on it, and hear about the conversations that I have been having. In that sense, I’ve been able to engage with other twenty-year-olds who are now thinking about death and having long conversations with me about death. I’ve been able to start having conversations with my parents about death, which has been really hard and scary, and something that really intimidated me for a while, but having the courage to do that comes from Death Cafés. The connections I’ve been able to create with strangers through Death Cafés have given me such a rich gratitude and appreciation for being on this journey with so many other people, and being able to share in life and death with them.

I think it’s interesting, because even with how much I think about death and talk about death, I think I will never be able to fully internalize, fully know with every fiber of my being, that I could be dead in the next five minutes, and I think that’s also okay with me. That’s a balance I’m learning and thinking through as well – when does thinking about mortality get unproductive, or when does it not help? I think anticipating the future and being excited for the future are good things.

I’ve noticed, as we’ve talked, that you use a lot of words that indicate gratitude. It seems like you have a strong sense of gratitude for what you’re doing and for life. Do you agree with that? Do you think it has to do with your involvement in this movement?

Absolutely. Gratitude is one hundred percent the first word that comes to my mind as well. I think 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. It helps us understand how to approach each day with the beauty and the authenticity of the gift that each day is.

Going forward, what are your ultimate goals for this project?

One thing I’m really excited about is to continue to bring this Death Café space to places that have never had it before. This is part of the bit I was talking about before with access to Death Café spaces, where 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. So, why I’m in Fargo is part of that, because North Dakota’s actually the only state in the U.S. that’s never had a Death Café, and so we got to be the first one a couple of days ago, which is really, really exciting and awesome.

What do you think these conversations – talking about death – do for a person’s life?

I think it’s different for everyone, and it really depends on what they are coming in with, and what they were hoping to get out of it. One thing that someone might leave with is, when they’re finally able to speak aloud thoughts that they’ve been struggling with for a while, they might leave with a sense of more peace or more comfort. For example, 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 was near tears as she was talking about it for the first time, but that was a really powerful moment for herm knowing that her feelings and fears and all those emotions were validated and were important in their own right.

A lot of people also leave with practical information on the death and dying process. A lot of people are connected to different resources or organizations. People will mention things like, “Oh, I got my green burial figured out through this organization,” and if that’s something that someone was looking into, that’s a really helpful resource for them. If someone is struggling with trying to have a conversation about their advance care directive with their family, someone might mention during a Death Café how there are all sorts of resources, like The Conversation Project, that help you have that conversation. It ranges from raw, messy, emotional feelings that are validated or supported in a community to very practical, logistical information about wishes for dying and preparations for dying. People walk away with different things that resonated with them or were important to them, but there’s always a promise of walking away with something.

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.


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