What better place could there be to discuss dying and death, what dying means, and how individuals think about their own mortality and break taboos than a hospice, itself a taboo for many in the past?
Sharing food and drink around a table at our weekly Death Chat creates an informal environment for participants to talk together.
There are few ground rules; of greatest importance is that participants are respectful of other points of view and each can find a place in which they are able to contribute to the discussion without judgement. Death Chat has attracted patients from the inpatient unit, bereaved family members, people from the community and family members of inpatients.
Wine and cheese
The purpose of Death Chat is to offer a weekly meeting place to whoever would like to come. This provides continuity and establishes relationships between attendees.
Death Chat has a flexible approach with a different discussion topic each week. New participants are welcomed and quickly find a place in the conversation as wine and cheese are shared.
We became the focus of a project for some postgraduate students from Goldsmiths, University of London, studying performance.
Their reflections on death and dying and the personal impact on them of attending Death Chat led to an evening performance in the hospice gardens of a piece they had co-created on the theme of dying.
Emma Berentson, speaking for the students said: “For our performance we asked the question; do we fear death because we will remain nothing more than a memory? We also wondered how, as performance makers, we could create a performance that would address the fear of dying? How could we create a performance that diminished barriers to talking about death and dying?”
Fellow students and course tutors attended the performance as well as regular Death Chat attendees. Attendees were challenged to consider their own dying and what the end of life can mean in a supportive, hospice environment.
Opening the doors to the community
We are committed to opening up our buildings to the community to change people’s perceptions of dying and death.
To do this St Christopher’s has developed a regular social programme of daily activities which includes a community choir and band, a quilting group, an amateur dramatics group, Sunday lunch with live music and a professional concert series.
In these activities, patients, family members, bereaved carers and people from the community gather together to sing, create a piece of art or a quilt, or meet to eat together. These events offer opportunities to change perceptions about dying and death and the work that the hospice does.
Molly, a regular participant has found Death Chat to be a welcoming and open space where she has been personally challenged: “I have learnt that death is more about my attitude to life than anything else. It has been by far the most important lesson I have learnt since dealing with bereavement.”
‘It’s nowhere near as depressing as it sounds’
Death Chat began in September 2013. Participants have discussed a range of topics which include assisted suicide, questions to ask a funeral director, the meaning of death, what is ‘heaven’ and the afterlife, dating after bereavement and cultural ways of grieving. Participants disagree with each other (sometimes very strongly) and listen to opposing points of view, but always with respect towards a differing perspective.
Attendees choose to come to Death Chat for very personal and diverse reasons.
Dawn and Celia came because they were recently bereaved and did not find formal bereavement support something which they wanted, but each knew that an informal group could be a good place to talk and find support; Diane has come because her mother has a life limiting illness and Death Chat provides a place in which she can talk about the stress of caring and how she feels about the impending death of her mother.
Malcolm came while he was on the inpatient unit as he wanted to be a part of a group which talked about dying. And Derek and Jean, a husband and wife joined Death Chat after Derek’s diagnosis of chronic heart failure; they wanted a place where they could be open together about the future.
Peter, another member of the group, reflected that his experience of Death Chat has differed from his expectations, “it’s nowhere near as depressing as it sounds; it’s a nice, friendly atmosphere – a convivial place.”
Hospices have a responsibility
Death Chat engages the hospice with the local community and encourages open conversation around the theme of dying and death.
Modern hospices were created to enable a good death for those with terminal illness and provide care for families and bereaved people. Hospices have a responsibility to encourage people to recognise that the quality of living can be enhanced by acknowledging dying, and to provide creative and challenging ways in which that can take place. Death Chat is one of those ways.
Death Chat is held in the Anniversary Centre at St Christopher’s Hospice between 7 – 9pm every Thursday. There is no need to book. Refreshments available.