La Jolla resident Susan Allen Toth said she once started a conversation about death that she thought would be enlightening, over dinner. "What do you think happens when you die?" I asked, "And there was a dead silence, and then somebody said, 'You're just gone, you're dust, let's not talk about that anymore." So when she saw an advertisement for a Death Café meeting on Monday, Sept. 26 at La Jolla Riford Library, she decided to attend and get the conversation started.
Death Café is an international organization that arranges gatherings of people, often strangers, who talk about death, dying and end-of-life care over coffee and cake. The groups are offered on a not-for-profit basis and don't follow a specific agenda or line of thought. They're often free, but contributions to pay for the treats are accepted.
These meetings have been happening in San Diego for years now, but the Sept. 26 gathering at the library was the first time one took place in La Jolla. With an attendance of 12 people (different ages and backgrounds), cake, coffee and conversation were served by organizer May Bull, another La Jolla resident.
Bull expalined that she retired two years ago from San Diego hospice, and after a career that pivoted around death issues, became interested in the Death Café eight months ago. "I knew that there had never been Death Café in La Jolla, so I thought, why not bring it into an area I'm familiar with?"
For years, Bull said, she watched people struggle with decisions at the end of their lives, or a loved one's life, and she wanted to do something about it. "This is meaningful to me, it's a continuation of the work I was doing. I knew when people where in hospice they had a hard time, they hadn't thought of the many things we talk about here."
After the participants introduced themselves, Bull explained the group's rules. "I made sure people knew this isn't a bereavement group, we're really talking about death, dying and end-of-life care. And it's meant to be more about one's personal thoughts on the topic and what would you wish would be when it comes to the end of your life," she said, adding Death Café veterans have found every meeting is different because it changes with the people who attend.
Allen Toth, who is in her 70s, said she is confronting her own mortality from a perspective of isolation from her former community in Minneapolis. "I wanted to spend this last part of my life living here (in La Jolla), away from the climate in Minnesota and on an ocean, but the down side is the lack of those deep connections," she explained. "My daughter, who lives in New York, has two really young sons. How am I going to tell her, 'Leave everything and fly out here right now and negotiate my immediate medical care?' "
During the meeting, Allen Toth said she learned that anyone can designate a "patient advocate," a person whose mission is to make sure wishes are met when it comes to one's advance directive, the document used to make medical decisions when a patient no longer can. A patient advocate can be a relative, a friend or a professional hired for the purpose.
Shirley Ordway said she drove to La Jolla from downtown San Diego to attend a Death Café for the first time. Her elderly mother has developed pneumonia.
"She says she's dying, so I'm looking at myself and my concepts, and I want the idea of death to be more of an everyday thing, as opposed to something our society decides not to talk about, which seems completely ridiculous to me," Ordway said. She chose to attend a Death Café meeting rather than a bereavement group because "that seemed a little clinical, or a little too intense, and I wanted it to be more of an open thing and have people come from all different venues with their insights and their different stories to see what I could contemplate on when it became time for my mother to pass.
"Right now our society considers death to be scary and frightful, and I don't think it necessarily has to be that way ... in this kind of enlightened environment, it's more open to any kind of interpretation."
During the first Death Café in La Jolla there was laughter, discussion and even heart-felt speeches, but not a lot of crying. Participants ranged from elderly people approaching their own deaths to young social worker interns trying to learn about dying to be better at their jobs.
Organizer Bull said she will put together more meetings in the future, or help others do so. Those interested can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
• ON THE WEB: deathcafe.com