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Discussing death: Hospice SLO hosts Death Cafes via Zoom 

Ever since the late East London resident Jon Underwood founded and hosted the first Death Cafe in his home in 2011, such gatherings have cropped up with surprising speed across the world.

The Death Cafe world map shows countries speckled with green markers noting the locations of thousands of Death Cafes—currently, there are 13,671 of them in 81 countries. There are also some closer to home—one of them hosted by Hospice San Luis Obispo.

click to enlarge TEA AND SYMPATHY Death Cafe participants gather over cups of tea and coffee, even on Zoom, to discuss and cope with grief. - SCREENSHOT FROM DEATH CAFE'S OFFICIAL WEBSITE
  • Screenshot From Death Cafe's Official Website
  • TEA AND SYMPATHY Death Cafe participants gather over cups of tea and coffee, even on Zoom, to discuss and cope with grief.

Death cafes are public turnouts where people openly discuss death, their curiosity around it, and sometimes the effect the passing of others has on them.

Kris Kington-Barker, former executive director of Hospice SLO and an end-of-life doula who now facilitates the nonprofit's Death Cafes, told New Times about participant guidelines.

"It's not run with an agenda. People who come to the Death Cafes, whether it is on Zoom or in-person, really participate in sharing what they want to talk about. Sometimes it can be started with a poem ... or a thought. There's nothing right or wrong about it, people come with their own opinions, everything from end-of-life options to green burials," Kington-Barker said.

Hospice SLO hosts Death Cafes on the first Thursday of every month. On and off since 2015, participants would meet up at local cafes over cups of coffee, tea, and slices of cake. But with COVID-19 in full swing, the sessions and beverages shifted to Zoom. Kington-Barker added that occasionally, funeral directors, nurses, and physicians facilitate Death Cafe sessions, and of late they're mainly aided by end-of-life doulas like herself.

"I think that definitely there has been research about talking about death and lessening the fear around it when people are able to express their feelings. In the Death Cafes we've had in person, we've had people who ... have received terminal diagnoses. They come to the Death Cafes because they're starting their preparation for death," Kington-Barker said.

But they aren't the only ones attending. SLO's Death Cafe, like most of its counterparts, comprises an eclectic mix of people. Kington-Barker mentioned that participants as young as 18 join, too, mainly to quench their curiosity about and overcome their fear of death.

One recent attendee is former SLO Symphony Concertmaster Brynn Albanese, who is working to be a therapeutic music practitioner and receiving certification for end-of-life doula work. She is a relative newcomer to the hospice's Death Cafe, and hopes to find more LGBTQ-plus Death Cafes around the nation.

"My journey didn't start with the Death Cafe. When I saw that word, I thought it was some 'woo-woo' thing, but ... it's a really safe space to talk about a supposedly taboo subject," she said.

Another participant is Valerie Richards, a Los Angeles-based chaplain in training. Like Albanese, she attended the latest Hospice SLO session on Feb. 3.

"This is the first time it's been more academic, and I actually may have contributed to that. But usually, it's just people talking about aging or all the paperwork that needs to be done so their adult children don't have difficulty making decisions. I went to a women's cafe last week ... and we talked about our own grief and how we managed those," Richards said. "There are so many different kinds of cafes. Every one that I've been to, ... none of them have been the same."

Richards is in her first year of a Master of Divinity program, and one of her assignments was to attend a Death Cafe.

"There's an ease with which I can talk about death. However, I think this will make me more comfortable because I'm with other people; I also express my own experiences of grief and loss," she said. "Loss is something everybody experiences, and I have the ability to be able to be compassionate, to listen, to not judge. All of that will be enhanced by listening to people's stories at the cafe."

Since November 2021, she has attended a dozen online sessions across the country, even a Death Cafe dedicated to animal companions.

"Parental loss of a child is also another area where there could be a Death Cafe, although there are support groups. Once you lose a child, people don't bring up their name anymore," Richards said.

Fast fact

• The Templeton Fire Stairclimb Team will celebrate its sixth annual Firefighters & Flowers for a Cure fundraiser from Feb. 12 to 14 to raise funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. This year the Templeton Stairclimb is climbing to honor Mason Watson, a 6-year-old Templeton resident who is battling leukemia. For more information call Fire Capt. Brandon Wall at (805) 540-4524 or visit the 2022 LLS Firefighter Stairclimb website. Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.

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