Let’s talk about death

Photos: George Reeves/CTV

The kettle is humming, there’s clinking of tea cups coming out of the cupboard, and idle chatter. A woman enters, says hello, and asks someone to make her a cup of tea, explaining that it’s difficult for her to do it herself. It quickly becomes clear no one here knows her.
Now it’s half past noon, and facilitator Don Bidgood calls the meeting to order. As they settle in, sipping tea and coffee, he asks the small group to introduce themselves by explaining what they do for a living. He’s a scientist. Across from him is Jan Haliburton, she’s a retired nurse, and remember that woman new to the table? That’s Martha McGinn, a former teacher.
“I think what attracted me to this group was the whole concept of death as a taboo subject,” says McGinn. “To say that word out loud is a little bit scary, and I wanted to make it less scary, because I have cancer: terminal, aggressive, glioblastoma, like Gord Downie. I was diagnosed in April out of the blue.”
That kind of declaration would make most rooms fall into a rapid, uncomfortable silence, but not this one.
“Wow,” murmurs Haliburton.
McGinn forges on. “So we’ve been dealing with a lot. I live in Dartmouth with two young-adult children and a husband and a cat, so we have been reaching out.”
For that she’s come to the perfect place. This is a meeting of the Death Café, an open drop in for anyone who wants to discuss anything about death and dying. The concept began in Switzerland 12 years ago when a sociologist and anthropologist organized what was then called a “Café Mortel.” The movement spread to France, England and North America. There have now been more than 3000 Death Cafés across the globe and two in the Halifax Regional Municipality.
“I think it’s the relief of being able to share with a sympathetic audience,” says Bidgood.
He started the Dartmouth chapter six months ago.
“The first reaction is often shock,” he says. “My own family was somewhat shocked when I announced that I was going to be acting as the host of the Death Café.”
He says some are appalled, but most are curious. His group meets in the community room of Sobeys on Baker Drive on the second Thursday of every month, and the numbers have been growing steadily.
At 84, Bidgood is now married to his third wife. He lost his first partner to Hodgkin’s disease, the second to breast cancer.
“I realized I was very unprepared for this. I was young, I was in my 30s, I’d done education, college and so on, but at the home we didn’t talk about it,” he explains. “I think partly it was a realization that I’d gained from these experiences and also a realization that it might be helpful to other people to be able to share this experience with them.”
Jan Haliburton felt it was a match for her. “I remember when my husband died 14 years ago,” she tells the group. “I thought I was the only one that was experiencing it.”
In his role as facilitator, Bidgood picks up on that theme of isolation.
“I remember when my second wife died and I was aware that she was quite deliberately isolating herself,” he says. “She didn’t want the neighbours to know. She didn’t want friends dropping in.”
But not everyone feels that way. Martha McGinn explains that she thought she would want privacy but has found, the more people she tells about her cancer, the more support she gets.
“Let’s not make death a secret,” she says. “It doesn’t make it better, what makes it better, is love.”
“And acknowledgement,” chimes in Haliburton.
“And acknowledgement,” McGinn agrees, “that you are a person beyond your illness.”
They all agree death remains a taboo word.
“It used to be like that about sex,” announces Haliburton.
“Yes!” someone exclaims, and the conversation dissolves into easy chuckles. Nothing is out of the question here, not even laughter.
“It’s very open, casual, no big deal,” says Haliburton, who hasn’t been coming long herself. “You say or you don’t say what you want to say. The end. I’ve learned something every time, about myself and other people, and I think to share with other people is what we’re here for.”
That’s why Martha McGinn came. “You’re kind of living with your feet in two places, you’re half in life and half in death because I don’t know if I’ll be here this time next year,” she says. “Every occasion is like my last Thanksgiving, your last Christmas, you don’t know, and it’s just something that you never talk about.”
Here they talk, and talk. They come from all walks of life, all stages of grief, some aren’t grieving at all, just curious and thoughtful.
“When is it right or wrong? Who cares?” says Jan Haliburton. “It’s not right or wrong, it’s some help.”
It helped McGinn. She says she’ll be back because there’s a lot more she wants to say, a lot more that she needs to say. She says her tea at the Death Café came with a side of support, confidentiality and respect. She immediately felt welcome, making a point to tell the rest of the group that, confessing she didn’t feel shy or hesitant asking for help with that cup of tea when she arrived. As the meeting begins to wrap up, she explains that her cancer has affected the mobility of her arm. “I don’t pick up china,” she laughs, and everyone joins her.
“Let’s face it,” says Bidgood. “[Death] is a door. All of us pass through it. None of us know what’s on the other side.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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