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Sandy Stork, second from left, contributes to a small group discussion about death on Wednesday, May 20, at Bellingham Community Life Center within Moles Farewell Tribute. // Photo by Chanel Retasket

Let’s drink some coffee and talk about death.

Morbid might be the word that comes to mind first. Maybe the ingrained reluctance to talk about death has some thinking that they would never participate. But on the third Wednesday of every month, a group gathers over coffee and cake to talk about what is a reality for everyone — death.

After spending most of her career working with elders who were entering the last chapter of their life, Sandy Stork decided to start the Whatcom affiliate of Death Café in August of 2013.

“Death Café comes out of, first of all, a feeling that it’s time we bring the topic of death out of the closet,” Stork said. “It’s a taboo subject and it hasn’t always been.”

In her work with elders, Stork often experienced that they were the most willing to talk about death and accept their own mortality. However, often these elders would find their families less willing to discuss the topic.

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// Photo by Chanel Retasket

The goal of the meetings is to create an atmosphere where people can listen and talk about death without the guilt or shame that might otherwise deter them from speaking about the topic. 

A Death Café isn’t a physical cafe; it’s a meeting at Bellingham Community Life Center within Moles Farewell Tribute on Lakeway Drive. About 20 members gathered on Wednesday, May 20, in a lively room full of laughter. After a brief welcome, the members broke into smaller groups of about five to share stories and talk about specific topics surrounding death.

These topics include things such as death with dignity laws, grief and loss, unexpected and sudden death, guilt and shame, death of the young, reincarnation and visualizing the death that one hopes for.

The general consensus in the room was that by being able to talk and open up to the idea of death, life is more meaningful.

“There’s also a component to the Death Café of the belief that owning and embracing the subject of death, in a personal way enriches your lived life,” Stork said. “I have found that true for myself.” 

Motives for coming to the Death Café vary among the attendees. While some want to talk about the loss of a loved one and the questions that raises, others come to the meetings for all different reasons.

Tom McCarthy started volunteering for the group about a year ago when he was experiencing pain surrounding his past experiences with death. He decided to find a way to improve his experiences, he said. Being able to have open conversations about death and dying at the Café helped him to be able to cope with death.

“The thing that I benefit most from is being able to encourage other people in the process of dealing with things that create the most suffering in life,” McCarthy said. “And that has to do with fear, specifically of dying and death.”

Kathy McKeever, who also attends the Death Café regularly, said she sees this as a way to build community. She has come to terms with the death process being a part of her life, she said.

“We’re all heading toward death,” McKeever said. “So I think it’s just important to shine light in the dark corners.”

McKeever said over time people have disconnected the death process from a part of our natural selves. It was not always such an unthinkable thing to talk about death, but over time people have become disengaged from doing so, she said.

The group is just one of many such gatherings that have developed across the U.S. Death Café originated in the U.K. and has since been a widespread idea across most of Europe and North America.

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// Photo by Chanel Retasket

The group always reminds those interested in coming that sharing stories and experiences is an important part of the meetings. However, these meetings are not intended to provide group support or therapy for those in the midst of grieving. Instead, they recommend that attendees seek personal therapy or support elsewhere.

The Whatcom Death Café meetings are free, non-denominational and open for anyone to attend. They meet on the third Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m.

“It’s not anybody claiming they have the answer,” Stork said. “It’s just opening your mind to the mysteries and possibilities and then having a place to share that.”


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