DWU Death Café provides open forum to tackle tough topics
Event provides forum to explore questions of death, loss
It’s a little under two weeks until Christmas, and students, staff and members of the public gathered at the Tiger Café on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University to enjoy a snack, a cup of coffee and some deep discussion.
On the subject of death.
Students in the Death, Dying and Life After Death class Monday held a Death Café event on campus — a sort of final for the class that serves as a way to allow students to apply what they have discussed and learned over the course of their semester.
A Death Café, a model which started in the United Kingdom, allows people to gather and talk openly about death-related issues, often at a café, where participants can enjoy a bite of food in a casual atmosphere.
Once it begins, no topics are off limits, said Denise Van Meter, an associate pastor at DWU and the teacher of the Death, Dying and Life After Death class.
“I started teaching the class five years ago and it came time to figure out what the final would be. And I wasn’t sure how you do a final in death,” Van Meter said. “And I’m interested in students applying what they have learned. I want them to gain the knowledge but also to be able to put that into practice.”
The class focuses on issues people face in the midst of loss, whether that be a death of a friend or family, a divorce, the loss of a job or another facet of life where change takes something away from an individual. On the topic of death, students and the instructor discuss a myriad of challenges and the emotional impact that comes with a death, but also on many of the tasks people must go through when handling the affairs of those who have passed.
That could include writing an obituary or handling financial affairs of the deceased. Or it could involve having the student ponder writing their own will — something that many people in their 20s tend to look past in their relatively youthful age.
Everyone will face death at some point, Van Meter said, even college students.
“We always have someone who loses a grandparent, and this gives them some application they can use 50 years from now when they’re closer to facing their own death or the death of their parents,” Van Meter said. “These skills are hopefully ones they can apply in many situations.”
This was the fourth time the class has held the Death Café, which is open to the DWU campus family of students, staff and faculty as well as the general public. The class is divided into a dozen teams of two. Each has a table with a topic related to the overall concept of death. Guests can move freely from table to table with the goal being that anyone who attends can take what is learned and share it with others.
Discussions in the class and at the Death Café have centered around subjects such as the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic, the loss of a marriage or relationship, the end of an athletic or college career as well as the death of a loved one. The discussion does not necessarily refer to a religious perspective, but rather how humans carry on with life after experiencing loss.
It is not necessarily a fun subject to dwell upon, but it is beneficial to those who study the subject, Van Meter said.
“It’s not something you want to talk about. But it can open the door. You don’t have to have all these conversations at once, but you can have them bit by bit when they want to,” Van Meter said.
Van Meter said she herself hadn’t written up her own obituary until she began teaching the class, noting that it was the perfect time for her to face those difficult questions and to develop a plan for her family when she is no longer there. She said the work opened up the gates in terms of being able to discuss death more comfortably with her own family.
“I sat down and did my funeral plans, then my obituary, not that I expect to die tomorrow,” Van Meter said. “I try to encourage the students that everyone has a story to tell, so do it with an obituary.”
Van Meter said the Death Café, which was held virtually last year due to COVID-19, usually draws a few dozen participants, some of them repeat attendees who enjoy finding ways to broach subjects that are sometimes taboo. Van Meter said she has gotten a positive response from others in the community who agree that discussing those issues beforehand can make end-of-life plans easier to organize.
“One of my friends is a palliative care doctor in town, and we were talking about the class one day, and they said you would make my job so much easier if you could talk to people before they come into my setting,” Van Meter said.
Van Meter said she hopes topics from the class and discussions from the Death Café will trickle down into more discussions between the students and their families. With the holidays in full swing, families are likely to be gathering to celebrate the season —with that comes the opportunity to tackle such topics.
Those conversations don’t have to dominate the table at Christmas dinner, but talking about such issues during a time when many contemplate personal loss and grief more acutely than other times of the year can be a beneficial exercise.
“The fact that family is together gives an opportunity to have conversations. It’s not something that you want to talk about, and it doesn’t have to be the big conversation, but it can open the door,” Van Meter said. “You don’t want to have every discussion all at once. You can have them bit by bit when they want to.”
There are many benefits that can come with approaching death through discussion rather than fear or dread, Van Meter said. The class and the Death Café exercise also serves as a reminder to embrace one’s time with people and to remember to support them when they are suffering their own loss. Holding those types of conversations may not only benefit you and your understanding of deep life issues, but it can better prepare you to help comfort and guide family and friends through difficult times.
Everyone is on their own life journey, and when those journeys come to an end, being part of a solid support system can make all the difference in the world to someone who is struggling with loss.
“It’s a good reminder of walking alongside people and reminding them that we’re not alone. That comes up over and over again when I do my research and we talk in class. That’s what most people want. They don’t want you to have all the answers. It’s so much you being there for them and being willing to listen. In a period when the South Dakota weather isolates us, it’s a reminder to sit and be with each other,” Van Meter said.