Ipswich Death Café - where it’s OK to talk about dying

Carolyn Turner, who helped to launch the first Ipswich Death Cafe. Picture: GEMMA MITCHELL

Carolyn Turner, who helped to launch the first Ipswich Death Cafe. Picture: GEMMA MITCHELL - Credit: Archant

Sitting on sofas arranged in a circle in the back room of a cosy café, everyone was asked to share why they had come along. Reasons ranged from bereavement, existential pondering, professional purposes and just pure curiosity.

“Ultimately, we are all going to die and we don’t talk about that,” said Carolyn Turner, who along with David Warner launched the first Ipswich Death Café in January.

The movement started in Switzerland in 2004 and hit the UK in 2011. The aim is to bring people together to have frank and honest conversations about death over a hot drink and cake and in turn enabling participants to live more fulfilling lives.

“I think often it helps people to make sense of what’s happened in their lives, to come to terms with the losses they have experienced,” added Carolyn, as I joined the group for its May meet-up. “I think it’s very liberating to be able to do that and not have to look after anyone, because often people feel like they can’t talk at home about death because someone might get upset. People don’t usually get upset at the death café, but if they do that would be OK.”

Surrounded by strangers, people spoke about some of their most intimate experiences; fears, regrets, hopes, aspirations and losses.

In the digital age, it’s never been easier to communicate with others, yet how often do we sit down and actually talk to someone face to face about what’s going on in our heads?

The death café provides an opportunity to do that. It is a bit like group therapy, with Victoria sponge.

Carolyn, 42 and a self-employed counsellor, added: “It’s so important for people to talk openly about death, grieving and bereavement without it having to be in hush tones or not talked about at all, pushed under the carpet. I have experienced that in my own family but also at work.”

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But why has death become such a taboo? “I think probably a big thing is a family script,” Carolyn said. “It’s one of those unspoken things, the elephant in the room that we all have in common but it’s not a good idea to talk about it.”

During the get-together, conversation turned to the Manchester terror attack and how the death of a child feels significantly more tragic than the death of an adult.

“I think it’s something to do with potential, and how they never had a chance to have the experiences we have had,” one suggested.

When asked what benefits the meetings can bring for participants, Carolyn said: “I think more freedom of choice to really embrace life, and death as part of that. In facing up to death we can make different choices in life. We can allow ourselves those feeling that are difficult.

“So far we have had a lot of positive feedback - how it’s felt really freeing to be able to talk about these things openly and no one gasps in horror.”

A regular at the Ipswich Death Café is Susie Ling, who lost her mother, grandmother, great aunt and two great uncles within four years. She has also been through a miscarriage.

“When you have been bereaved, after a while you feel like there’s only so much you can talk about it, perhaps it’s that concern that people will be fed up of listening to you,” she said.“The café provides a safe space where you can talk about it without having to sensor yourself. There’s not that emotional attachment to other people.”

The 40-year-old said the British notion of a “stiff upper lip” at times prevented people from expressing grief.

Despite its subject matter, the death café is not all doom and gloom. Susie said some sessions had been spent laughing from start to finish.

When tragedies like the Manchester bombing strike, it forces us to reflect on our own mortality. Many have spoken about holding their loved ones closer and taking stock of how precious life is. I walked away from the meeting with similar thoughts.

It’s easy to get bogged down when reading the headlines nowadays. Just a flick through some of the comments left on our stories online will show how divided we are on some of the big issues, and how ruthlessly people are willing to fight their corner. So it felt like a breath of fresh air to sit with real people and discuss something which, as Carolyn said, we all have in common.

The Ipswich Death Café meets once a month at La Tour Cycle Café in Tower Street. Entry is free but places must be booked on Eventbrite. More information is available on the group’s Facebook page.