Shedding light on a dark topic: Local resident, growing movement aim to open discussion on death and, in turn, celebrate life

Encinitas+resident+Tiffany+Fox+is+hosting+a+Death+Cafe+discussion+group+Oct.+18+in+Del+Mar.+%28Photo+by+Troy+Orem%29
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Shedding light on a dark topic: Local resident, growing movement aim to open discussion on death and, in turn, celebrate life

Encinitas resident Tiffany Fox is hosting a Death Cafe discussion group Oct. 18 in Del Mar. (Photo by Troy Orem)

Encinitas resident Tiffany Fox is hosting a Death Cafe discussion group Oct. 18 in Del Mar. (Photo by Troy Orem)

Troy Orem

Encinitas resident Tiffany Fox is hosting a Death Cafe discussion group Oct. 18 in Del Mar. (Photo by Troy Orem)

Troy Orem

Troy Orem

Encinitas resident Tiffany Fox is hosting a Death Cafe discussion group Oct. 18 in Del Mar. (Photo by Troy Orem)

Helen Hawes

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Encinitas resident Tiffany Fox is hosting a Death Cafe on Oct. 18 in Solana Beach. She’ll be serving cake with tea, and you are invited to attend.

When Fox heard of the Death Cafe, she felt she’d been looking for it all her life. A mother with children ages 2 and 4 years old, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer just six months earlier. Her prognosis is good and she said the Death Cafe helped her to heal by contemplating her own mortality.

“Although death is universal, we hardly ever speak of it,” she said.

So, instead of feeling dread when talking about death, Fox was relieved. Speaking with a group of strangers about the end of life as we know it made her feel lighter. She said it was one of the most profound conversations she ever had. She wants others to share in the experience.

“I hope people get a feeling of lightness of being that they can talk about something that no one ever asks them about,” she said.

Here’s how it works: the group meets at someone’s home or a larger hall. If there is a large number of people, they’re broken down into groups of four or five and just start talking. There are prompts on each table if inspiration is needed. At the end, one person from each group informs the rest what they discussed. It’s free but you can make a donation if you’d like.

There are no religious affiliations or business agendas regardless of location. It’s not a bereavement group or counseling service; it’s a discussion group.

There’s also that cake. Fox said it adds sweetness to a dark topic and gives people something to do with their hands. It’s a Death Cafe tradition.

The Death Cafe is a worldwide phenomenon that sociologist Bernard Crettaz started in Switzerland. He hosted “cafe mortels” because he wanted to remove the social taboo of speaking about death.

The movement spread to Paris and London before landing smack-dab in Midwest America and spreading across the country. In each place, one person has spearheaded the idea. In San Diego, that person is Karen Van Dyke.

vandyke-karen-2014Van Dyke hosted numerous cafes herself when she realized that if the movement were to grow, she couldn’t do it alone. So she began training others and now reckons she has about 10 new hosts.

Like Fox, Van Dyke is also a breast cancer survivor. But she came to the Death Cafe for a different reason. She works with seniors through her business, Senior Care by Design. She found that while people make plans for everything else in their lives — such as planning for a baby, a trip, a reunion — most don’t plan for later life.

“Death Cafe,” she said, “was a way of working backwards.”

She wanted to get people to start talking. Because most people don’t talk about the later stage of life or about death, they face decisions about home health care, resuscitation, hospice, wills and funerals in crisis mode. That’s because there is a stigma attached to discussing the end of life, as though death was something a person could catch, like a cold.

She mentioned one attendee who captured the sentiment when she said, “I realized I wasn’t going to die if I talked about death.”

Van Dyke said that talking about life in finite terms causes people to make the most of their time.

Still, people do like to put it off, saying things such as, “now’s not the time,” and, “don’t be morbid,” to those who bring up the subject.

A woman called Chello, a senior who works as an exercise instructor, said she was in denial about death. But what she couldn’t forget were the problems her daughter had in tying up the loose ends after her father died, such as taking care of the funeral, probate, etc.

When Chello heard of the Death Cafe, she was initially appalled, she said, but something still tugged at her to attend. Since she didn’t want her daughter to go through the experience again, she used the cafe to start gathering information.

Unlike Fox, who attends for more esoteric reasons, Chello said she wanted the nuts and bolts to put together her own end-of-life plan. Taking care of that, she said, frees her to enjoy her life much more.

Fox, Van Dyke and Chello all said the same thing. By facing death, they appreciate and enjoy life so much more.

Tiffany Fox’s Death Cafe will be held at 2 p.m. on Oct. 18 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito, 1036 Solana Drive, Solana Beach. Registration is requested but not mandatory. For more information or to register, contact Fox at tiffanymfox@gmail.com.

Helen Hawes is a North County freelance writer

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