In January of 2018 Loretta Downs, M.A. gerontology, and I co-founded Death Café Ajijic aka Café Mortality Ajijic at Lake Chapala, Mexico.
The first café started the next month with the intention of encouraging the mostly retired community to talk about and prepare for end-of-life, not only to save loved ones and neighbors a lot of grief and time, but to provide a space to talk out feelings, hopefully leading to more well-being.
Because we travel a lot, we invited other health professionals in the community to join as volunteer hosts. We have been fortunate. There is now a rotating team to handle responsibilities for the all-volunteer events starting in 2019. We continue to do our best to improve the experience for attendees. One of the best ways for me to learn is to experience other Death Cafes.
For those of you unfamiliar with Death Cafes, they have been in existence since 2011 and are now in 63 countries of the world. See www.DeathCafe.com for a café near you.
I was recently in Santa Barbara, CA, originally a Spanish mission post, to attend the Santa Barbara Death Café.
It was a pleasure to enter the donated venue at 11 E. Carrillo Street, the Hill-Carrillo Adobe. Beautiful place built in 1825. It is on the National Registry of Historic Places.
There are three dedicated hostesses in Santa Barbara. One of them provides her grandmother’s tea cups and linen. Others bring cake or cookies. Attendees offer donations to defray expenses.
One of the surprises for me was that Santa Barbara Death Cafe provides a mobile library. They bring books in a large carton each month for participants to check out!! I love this idea!!
Participants in Santa Barbara are all adults, mostly older adults. In a group of about 20, there were two men, one a recent widower. We introduced ourselves to each other at a long, rectangular table, one by one, sharing briefly what brought us to the café.
We dispersed after the introductions to talk in groups of three, four, or more. It was organic, and attendees were encouraged to move to another group if they so desired. I see how attendees return over and over again. The hostesses and environment feel cozy and safe.
Thank you Death Café Santa Barbara and Center for Successful Aging for your hospitality!!!
I also attended an intimate Death Café in Santa Monica a few days prior to the Santa Barbara Café. It was hosted by a lovely woman at her office space. She is a psychologist, grief counselor. death doula, and drama therapist from Pasadena. There were five of us all together. The counselor led by asking why each came, and the other three participants, each in their 30’s, were off and running, lively and engaged from the start. Time went by quickly. This multi-talented lady also offers a Death Goes to the Movies night. Recently she screened a documentary about a psychiatrist/musician preparing for his green burial.
Both cafes in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica were unique, rewarding experiences. You may find the next dates for these Death Cafes or others near you at http://www.DeathCafe.com. If you do not find one, perhaps you may have a desire to start one.
Please see the following links for articles about two of the cafes in Ajijic if you are interested – how we organized, and how attendees shared experiences at the end.
Award-winning author, podcast host, and hospice physician Karen Wyatt connects healthcare professionals and the public with information about healing options for the dying through End of Life University, which she founded in 2013.
For three years+ I have been dedicated to a palliative care/hospice mission for Mexico. Even though I am back and forth to California, I am continually on the look-out for how care and support for patients and families is being provided on a national and global basis.
What interests me are differences place to place as they relate to education for providers, physicians, patients, and families – what’s missing, what’s working, what options and perceptions about dying are offered.
This is where Colorado-based hospice physician and thought leader Karen Wyatt comes in. She brings my quest to my computer in an open and engaging way through her END OF LIFE UNIVERSITY web site podcasts. Colleagues share experiences, feelings, information and wisdom about how they are advancing best practices for end-of-life.
Dr. Wyatt’s approach to death and dying is holistic, with a special emphasis on sacred and spiritual aspects of our transitions.
The goal of her effort is a national dialogue for “creative healing… opening the heart of Western medicine.” The podcasts, connections, and resources are a welcome gift not only for healthcare professionals but the public as well. See www.EOLUniversity.com.
In conjunction with the university, Dr. Wyatt launched an on-line book club in January 2018, The Year of Reading Dangerously, where she introduces one book per month about an aspect of end-of-life, and, interviews the book’s authors live on-line. Participants type in questions on-line or ask via the phone line they are listening on.
Interview with Dr. Wyatt
Please share with us about your personal history, and, what led to your work in end-of-life care.
I trained to be a family doctor. I had no knowledge of death and dying or hospice.
Three years after my residency, my father died by suicide. His sudden death upended my world. I felt guilty. I had training in psychiatry and couldn’t save my dad. I floundered for a long, long time trying to get through the grief. Three years after his death, I still felt very lost. I was wondering if I would ever smile or feel joy again. Suddenly a voice said, “call hospice.” It was my voice, and I have no idea where the message came from.
I didn’t even know if there was a hospice in the Utah community I lived in. I searched “hospice” and found one. I called and asked if they needed a volunteer. When they discovered I am a doctor they enthusiastically exclaimed “oh my goodness!” The Hospice Director, stunned, continued to ask “what made you call us now?” I just had an inspiration, I replied. The Director continued, “Our medical director resigned 30 minutes ago and now you’ve called us.” Just like that I became a hospice medical director. I was guided to this place, and I knew it for sure when I met the team.
What inspired the creation of End-of-Life University? What led you to gather fellow end-of-life colleagues to share what they know with each other and the public?
Years in hospice have brought me profound spiritual experiences. I have learned many lessons about how to live my own life. Hospice has helped me live a life of appreciation and that brought me to the decision to write a book. Many patients had asked if I could tell their stories one day. I made a promise to do so.
Writing a book was a long process and is what probably inspired the eventual creation of EOL University. I began the book in 1999 and finished in 2010. I felt I must live the lessons of the book in order for it to be complete. The book was published in 2012 and it was then I realized for the first time that the population, in general, was resistant to talking about death and dying. It seemed people were not ready or open; it was the last thing they wanted to talk about. It was then I knew I wished to do something to change this, something different needed to happen.
Brainstorming led to the question, what else may I be involved with other than a blog or writing? (At the time, Wyatt was posting occasional articles on Huffington Post and in local newspapers). The year was 2013 and I began listening to on-line interviews on other subjects and realized no one was doing this on-line for death and dying. I started the research to find people to interview. It was fun, I loved it (and still do). I was learning so much and wished to keep it going. That was five years ago. I am grateful to the Internet and social media as networks for good.
What response did you receive when you first began End-of-Life University?
End-of-Life University is always a work-in-progress, unfolding. In the beginning I felt no one was listening to the interviews, and that no one cared. The interest grew slowly over time. I learned consistency is important, showing up regularly. I followed the top web sites in Google search. I recognized ranking makes a difference. Over the years EOL University has gone from 200 to 4,000 subscribers. There is a lot of patience on my part.
I knew I was in it for the long haul, and it was the right thing to do whether I received validation for it or not. In the last couple years, whenever I’ve been at a conference, I kept meeting people who have been listening to the podcasts. Some would say, “every week, your interviews got me through two terrible years when my mother died, or “I’m interested in working in end of life because of your podcasts.” One of most important things I learned is that your heart tells you to continue, even if there are signs showing otherwise. You don’t know the impact you are making, but someday you may find out. Always trust your heart.
How did the concept of creating the book club with its engaging title, the Year of Reading Dangerously, take hold?
I felt it would be important. There are so many books, and books are another wonderful way people can learn about death and dying. The goal is to reach people. The concept of reading and discussing a different book each month had been with me for a while. So late one night I posted the book club on Facebook to see if there might be any interest. I was imagining maybe 20 persons might respond, and if so, that would be great. Well 150 had signed up! Now over 1,000 have signed up. It’s never too late to join. The response has been so positive I am thinking about continuing the book club in 2019.
What I like most about the club are diverse points of view, completely different voices with unique perspectives discussing end-of-life. I owned some of the books and hadn’t read them yet. Some of the authors I had invited to talk about their books suggested others. Katy Butler, author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, suggested Megory Anderson’s book Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of Life. Ken Wilbur is a friend and I felt his story Grace and Grit would be compelling.
I find a lot of our listeners are going through their own personal struggles related to death and dying. It seems energetically powerful and perhaps healing if people around the world are reading the same books. There is something enormously attractive about bringing people a shared body of useful knowledge.
Dr. Wyatt has retired from her medical practice. Her focus is end-of-life education. She enjoys speaking to audiences across the U.S. and has discovered that “threads” connecting those who do this work remain strong. “Death has called us in and somehow we end up sharing our experiences with others,” she says.
The “death positive” movement has taken off in recent years. Dr. Wyatt’s End-of-Life University and her podcasts seem to be at the right place at the right time.
It was almost 20 years ago when Bill Moyers’ PBS series ON OUR OWN TERMS showed that those of us who tend to the dying wish “to assure patients they can have a ‘good death’ one that fits them, their families, and their culture.” This is Dr. Wyatt’s mission as well. More people are now receiving the message.
Thought: What do you wish for your end-of-life?
Links where you can learn more or support the non-profit, all volunteer End-of-Life University: