“My mother fell in the Strawberries. We laughed till we cried”

Death Café – Sue Ryder, Thorpe Hall Hospice, Peterborough 13th May 2013


“My mother fell in the Strawberry patch and we laughed till we cried.”
One loving memory of a mother, who having problems standing, had fallen over in her strawberry patch. Mum and daughters collapsing into gales of laughter as a result.

Was it right to laugh when faced with death? Laughter was part of life as was death. Just because someone was dying it didn’t mean you couldn’t still enjoy a good laugh with them.

Don’t treat people differently just because they’re dying. They’re not made of glass and often long to be treated like every one else.

As part of Dying Awareness week, the Sue Ryder Hospice at Thorpe Hall in Peterborough decided to hold its first Death Cafe. Maggie Fay and I had been in contact with each other and jointly with Philip Ball and others we took the Death Cafe, to this splendid old building which dates back to the time of Oliver Cromwell.

Just over 20 people came along. We had a mix of people from Sue Ryder others involved in palliative care, a firm of local undertakers and the general public.

I was particularly struck by one person telling me their son had died in his sleep. He was only 26. This had been wholly unexpected and a significant shock at the time. His death was something she still lived with.

This was very resonant. One of the key points made at Death Cafes is that none of us know how long our life will be. You have to treat each day as precious and make the most of it.

We started off the evening by asking people why they’d come and what they hoped to get from the evening? A number of people were there out of curiosity and professional interest. What reaction had they got when they told people where they were going? Questions had ranged from “Why do you want to go and do that?” to “That sounds interesting, but I’m too busy”.

Oh to be too busy to die! This was certainly the case for my grandmother who didn’t have the time to die while my grandfather was alive. Sadly following his death, her “life’s work” at an end, she shortly followed him.

“I don’t want to tempt fate” had been another reason. I mentioned Jon Underwood’s comment on Radio 4 that talking of sex didn’t make you pregnant and talking of dying didn’t kill you.

Should you wear clean underwear in case you got run over? Was this not tempting fate? Was the best way to avoid death to abandon all aspects of personal hygiene?

Have you discussed death with your parents? This seemed an easier discussion for mothers and daughters than fathers and sons. One person commented her sons had made it clear that any discussion she wished to have over arrangements for her death should be with their sister and not them.

The tea was strong and the cakes were thick and sweet. The evening passed with periods of reflection and gales of laughter.

Did working in palliative care equip you better to deal with death? Not always, and it could strike those who dealt with it on a daily basis with as much pain and anguish as it did the family and relatives.

Finally, we discussed the question of playing music at your funeral. Disco Inferno, the Muppets and the Stripper were all mentioned. All meant with a certain irreverence but also warmth for their reflection on the lives of the people who had been loved and lost.

This was my sixth Death Café. Since I went to my first last October, the movement has positively exploded with Cafes being held far and wide and now exceeding over a hundred in number.

As with all of them, people left smiling, pleased to have come and wanting to come again. An evening of tea, cake and the meaning of life and death can be very hard to resist.

A big thank you to Maggie, Phil and everyone else at Sue Ryder for making its a terrific evening.

The next Death Café in Bury St Edmunds is on the 27th May at the Quaker Meeting House in St John Street. Full details on the this website